In Haiti’s Absence, Human Rights Review Proceeds in Geneva

by ursavoice

Emma Rosenberg
J.D. Candidate 2013, UCI Law

    The weighty importance and grandeur of Salle XX of the United Nations building in Geneva, Switzerland begins at the entrance of the room–those not donning a special badge must put their bags through an x-ray scanner and walk through a metal detector. Once through, the glass doors of the Human Rights Council room reveal an awe-inspiring, grandiose space with a dramatic, colorful ceiling that seems to drip blues and greens and reds onto the delegates sitting in concentric semi-circles below. At the front of the room, sit the delegates of the nation undergoing its Universal Periodic Review (UPR), a process begun in 2006 to address human rights compliance for all member nations of the U.N.

    When I arrived at Salle XX on October 10, 2011, the UPR was on its last leg of the first cycle of the human rights review. Haiti was set as the last country to be reviewed on October 13th. As it turned out, Haiti was also the only country to fail to send a delegation from the government. We first learned of this news after talking to the representative from Cuba. When we approached him to lobby for our proposed recommendations for Haiti’s review that Thursday, he shook his head and laughed as he informed us that Haiti was going to be a no-show. My heart sunk in disbelief. Although I probably should have, I never even thought that this absence could be a possibility. Would the review even happen? Did we come all the way to Geneva for nothing? Would Haiti surprise everyone at the last minute and send a delegation? After a couple days of prying for information, talking to different countries, and sifting through the many rumors floating around, we were notified that, although Haiti was not sending a delegation, the permanent Haitian mission in Geneva would represent the country. The review would proceed in the Haitian delegation’s absence, and nobody seemed that shocked that the whole debacle occurred.

    Another salient absence was that of any Haitians, besides two Haitian attorneys who were part of our team and worked for the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux in Haiti, and the Haitian permanent mission who would represent the country. Although the team of attorneys I was working with had plans to bring several Haitians to Geneva, these Haitians were unable to obtain visas in time. The flights and rooms were funded and booked, but unnecessarily complex bureaucracy barricaded the integral presence of Haitian citizens from a process that affected and involved their lives and daily realties. The lawyers on our team from the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) and MADRE explained how this palpable absence of Haitians was indicative of a general and systemic exclusion of Haitian voices from the governmental processes and decisions that directly affect them. While everyone talked about the atrocities and human rights abuses that plague Haiti everyday, those who were actually experiencing these horrors and who were in the best position to articulate the problems and the needs were thousands of miles away.

    At Haiti’s UPR on October 13th, the representatives from the different countries spoke of the need to address violence against women and children, the horrible conditions in the displacement camps, and the extreme poverty in Haiti, as they sat under the beautifully colored high ceiling of Salle XX in Geneva where a ham sandwich costs ten Swiss Francs. The dissonance was tangible.

    After the evening’s closing remarks, which commemorated the end of the first cycle of the UPR, a large reception was held outside Salle XX. People schmoozed, drank wine, and ate mini pastries. Nicole Phillips, a staff attorney at IJDH and my supervisor, hurried downstairs immediately after the session ended. She was conducting a conference call with several people to recap the UPR and talk about the next steps, including trips to Haiti and working with the Haitian people and other organizations to implement the many recommendations discussed earlier that day. I started my work with Nicole on this UPR last semester, and she had started her work with Haiti long before that. As the doors to Salle XX closed that Thursday on the first cycle of the UPR, our doors swung open a little further.