Report from the Cange forum

By Monika Kaira Varma

A few days ago, I attended Zanmi Lasante's 13th Annual Health and Human Rights Forum in Cange, Haiti.

I first came to Cange almost five years ago, after Loune Viaud received the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award for her groundbreaking work with Zanmi Lasante to realize the right to health for all Haitians. Since then, the RFK Memorial Center for Human Rights has partnered with Loune and Zanmi Lasante and we have learned many lessons from Haiti.

Despite being a country with very limited resources, Haiti has emerged as a leader in the global movement for health and human rights. Even a child in Haiti will tell you that we have a right to health, water, education, housing and food, and that these rights are just as important as our civil and political rights. In terms of defining a government's obligations toward its people, Haiti's Ministry of Health is a particular leader: as Dr. Gabriel Timothee, the Ministry's Director General, stated, the right to health is not simply about care, but includes ensuring that everyone can lead a healthy life, and the government has the primary responsibility to fulfill this right in its totality.

As a human rights advocate, there should be little work to do in a country that recognizes its obligations and wants wholeheartedly to fulfill them. But sadly, this is not the situation in Haiti. Instead, international institutions often undermine and violate Haitians' human rights.

The international community has shown its lack of respect for human rights in Haiti far too many times. To take just one example, in the most impoverished country in the hemisphere, ranked 147th out of 147 nations by the Water Poverty Index, where one out of every three deaths is a child, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) stopped lifesaving loans for potable water, health, education and rural roads because of international pressure. The IDB and the Haitian government approved the loans and signed a contract, but just before money started to flow to these vital projects, the United States government intervened to stop any funds from reaching Haiti. Seven years later, a part of these loans has been "released," but countless Haitians die every year because of the failure to implement the approved water and sanitization projects.

No one has been held accountable for these deaths.

The human rights community has long debated whether and how to advocate for economic and social rights. The critical question now is not "whether," but "how"? Traditional legal and human rights frameworks are not working in the places where they are most needed. Every day, international donors, the United Nations, international financial institutions and member states undermine and violate human rights in countries like Haiti.

We have a duty to hold the perpetrators accountable. As Dr. Timothee rightly asserted, the Haitian government is the primary guarantor of human rights for Haitian citizens, but those individuals and institutions that undermine the government's ability to do its job must be held accountable too.

We at the RFK Center for Human Rights have spent the last five years trying to do just that. We have been investigating the US government and IDB's actions and examining the devastating health impacts of withholding the loans. We are calling these actions what they are, human rights violations, and exploring accountability mechanisms. There have been many obstacles and a few mistakes made along the way. We've had to rethink our old tools and find new ones, but we have been led by great leaders. I was privileged to spend time with them this past week in Cange.

The broader human rights community can join these efforts by recognizing that the right to health is as fundamental as the right to vote and that human rights violators, no matter where they act must face the consequences of their actions. Together we can find innovative ways to hold these international actors accountable for undermining and violating human rights in places like Haiti.

Monika Kaira Varma is Director of the Center for Human Rights at the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial

[published September 2007]