The Right to Housing for Internally Displaced Haitians

While the eyes of the world are on Haiti’s illegitimate elections and the return of the deposed dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier, about 1.5 million displaced earthquake survivors continue to live in sub-human conditions. In the absence of large-scale or systemic responses by the government, international community, or aid organizations, progressive civil society organizations are evolving strategies to win the right to housing. “We’re supporting earthquake victims who are organizing themselves to form a social movement to claim their rights, first, for quality housing and, second, against being evicted,” said human rights lawyer Patrice Florvilus.

Overall conditions in the camps have not improved since their spontaneous creation a year ago. New research by Professor Mark Schuller shows almost no progress in providing basic services in camps, even in the midst of a cholera epidemic which has claimed more than 4,000 lives and infected more than 209,000 others. Schuller’s team of researchers found that the number of camp residents with access to water today is only 40.5%, while only 30.3% of camps have toilets. In a second report just released by the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti and the LAMP for Haiti Foundation, 60% of the camp residents surveyed live on less than $1 a day, and have only marginal access to food and clean water. One-half said they had been unable to feed their children for at least one entire day during the preceding week.

No one knows how many people remain in the camps. Some have been evicted by private landowners, occasionally through Haitian police violence. This is despite a November ruling by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States that the Haitian government must put a moratorium on forced evictions unless they provide evictees with safe shelter. The Inter-American Commission’s ruling, following a petition brought by five Haitian and U.S. law centers, also mandates other protections and remedies from the government. The government has yet to fulfill one of the mandates.

The Interim Commission for the Reconstruction of Haiti – the unconstitutional, Bill Clinton-led, international governing body – claims that half of the 1.5 million displaced people have moved from tents to housing. It also asserts that “Much of this is directly attributable to the I.H.R.C. and its partners.” In fact, The Chronicle of Philanthropy reports that only 31,656 transitional homes (‘transitional’ sometimes meaning only a slightly scaled-up tent) have been built as of last month. And according to Schuller’s research, most camps that have dissolved have done so “because of the complete failure to provide sanitation services following the cholera outbreak”,[1] not because they’ve been offered relocation options.

The Interim Commission is now encouraging a ‘market’ angle to respond to the crisis. In a confidential report which it produced together with the Government of Haiti and which was leaked to this writer, “Work Plan for Returning the Displaced to Their Homes and Reconstructing Housing” (no date), the Interim Commission calls on the private sector to “fully play its role [in the reconstruction] and assume a progressive leadership in creating markets.” And the World Economic Forum that just met in Davos, Switzerland formed a Rebuilding Haiti Initiative to “leverage the power of the private sector, working in partnership with the public sector and civil society, to help Haiti realize this untapped potential – a direct example of corporate global citizenship.”

Interim Commission politics and corporate profits aside, permanent, dignified housing is a right amply protected by national and international law. Attorney Florvilus said, “The legal principle of the Haitian state is that when a person is in danger, that person has the right to assistance. And Article 22 of the constitution guarantees decent housing for everyone. Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights [of the United Nations] guarantees housing for all. The U.N. [Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs] Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement says that people may not be evicted. And then there’s the moratorium in evictions we got from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

“The right to housing is tied to other rights, like the right to respect of physical integrity, such as for women and girls, and to clean water – all the more important in a period of cholera. The International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights gives protections which complement the right to housing. It says that without other social and cultural rights, the right to housing isn’t being respected.”

Some Haitian NGOs have stepped outside their normal missions to provide housing, like the small-farmer support group Institute of Technology and Animation (ITECA). ITECA is building 1,700 houses that are environmentally sound (the roofs collect rain water, for example) and that use local building materials to the degree possible.

Other progressive Haitian non-profits, grassroots organizations, and camp committees are engaging in advocacy to claim the right to housing. Florvilus explained, “About ten groups, including camp committees, formed the Initiative against Eviction. We’re mobilizing, like during the week leading up to [the earthquake anniversary] on January 12. We brought visibility to the question of housing. We had teach-ins, photo exhibits, and film showings at different camps.” The Initiative against Eviction has also organized sit-ins on the days of the threatened eviction deadlines, distributed fliers and information packets, and hosted numerous meetings for camp residents and civil society groups to come together and discuss issues and possible solutions.

“We’re also articulating rights that people have to quality housing and property, using popular education. A couple of organizations have used theatre and dance in the camps, through a group called Ancestors. We help people see that their lives didn’t just develop haphazardly, but that they’ve evolved from social and economic history. Now from that place, we help them see that they’re social actors who can struggle to change their conditions, and then all together we can develop strategies.”

Legal support is another component. Florvilus said, “Through the Bureau of International Lawyers, we’re accompanying people to go to court when they’re evicted. But first we try to stop the evictions with legal arguments in the camps before we get to court.

“We have plans to start training volunteer community paralegals. These are people who might never have studied law but whom we train in the camps so they can collect evidence. When we’re bringing cases against evictions, they’ll have the facts to help us defend the victims. Another thing we’re going to be doing is working with law students who don’t have the possibility to finish their schooling. We ask them to give two years of volunteer service in exchange for the training. They’ll work with the community paralegals to train more and more people.

“The whole problem relates to who has control over land. We have to reflect on how a small minority of people in the country have almost all the land and the majority have no space where they can construct houses they’ve lost. Only 5% of Haitian land has legal owners. The state has to verify land titles and find out who are really the landowners. We’re taking people to court to verify titles, to see if the presumed landowners are the actual ones.

“We’re also showing people that no one can keep big landholdings vacant while others are living under tents. Article 36 [of the constitution] says that people have the right to private property and that their property can’t be arbitrarily taken away, but Section 3 [of that article] says that the right to private property can’t be contrary to the public good.”

We are very grateful for the tremendous work that Rachel Wallis has done to get these articles out far and wide since the earthquake. We wish her great success at her new post at the Crossroads Fund.

[1] Email from Mark Schuller, January 25, 2011.