mario-joseph-306

Haitian human rights lawyer Mario Joseph tries to make Haiti's justice system work for poor people, particularly those who still live in resident camps in Haiti. (Timothy Neesam/CBC)

Mario Joseph's law office in Port-au-Prince is always filled with people. Dozens, sometimes hundreds, of Haitians arrive daily, seeking advice and support in their struggle against the chaos of Haiti after the earthquake.   Mario Joseph and the other lawyers at the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, or BAI, take on a wide variety of cases: forced evictions from camps for "internally displaced persons," rape cases, illegal arrests and imprisonment.

The office is a hub for human rights activists.

"Without Mario, most of these courageous justice fighters would have nowhere to seek legal advice and would not be able to do much of their work," says Brian Concannon, director of the Boston-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, BAI's affiliate.

As Haiti gears up for controversial presidential and legislative elections at the end of November, grassroots anger is growing. Demonstrations are being organized to protest against appalling living conditions, the lack of progress in rebuilding and, now, the terrifying threat of cholera.

Mario Joseph is among those Haitians who are bitter about the ineffectiveness of the international community's aid efforts and feel the elections are a waste of time and money.

The human rights lawyer was in Toronto recently and spoke with CBC producer Jennifer Clibbon about Haiti on the eve of the elections.


CBC News: Let's talk first about the tent cities. You are particularly concerned about forced evictions and sexual violence in the camps. Tell me about these problems.

Mario Joseph: At the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux BAI we work with women who have been raped in the camps, and the cases of rapes have tripled since the earthquake. In the camps there is no security, and women are often attacked in the dark because there is no electricity or lighting. When they are attacked some go to the police station, but they are often sent away.

family-camp-haiti-306

Members of the Pierre family, who survived an earthquake, pose for a photograph in a provisional camp set up at the Canapevert zone in Port-au-Prince on Sept. 28, 2010. More than 1 million people left homeless after the earthquake are still living in the camps. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters) (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

And within two weeks of the earthquake, landowners began evicting internally displaced people [IDPs]

from their camps.

Land in Haiti is a big problem. Only a tiny percentage of the land has recorded ownership, yet purported landowners are trying to push the people out of the camps without having to establish title. Our government is doing nothing to ease the problem. Sometimes they even help the landlords to evict the people.

The right to adequate housing is guaranteed by the Haitian Constitution of 1987. That's why we are pushing the government to do something like a moratorium on evictions. But my government isn't listening. It does nothing.

In the aftermath of the earthquake, the international community showed an outpouring of generosity for Haiti. People from all around the world donated money to support the relief effort. Yet today we still lack many things, like potable water, food, adequate shelter and health care. We simply don't know how UN agencies and NGOs are spending the money. There is no accountability.   CBC News: How do you expect the cholera epidemic to develop now? What will its impact be?

Mario Joseph: It will be a second disaster because of the horrible sanitation conditions - especially in the camps - and the general lack of access to potable water for camp residents. In these horrible conditions, cholera is sure to spread rapidly.

We must contain the epidemic and prevent it from spreading.

CBC News: There is some irony in the fact 1.5 million homeless people in the camps are now being evicted from the only shelter they have. Why are they being pushed out?

Mario Joseph: In the capital there are around 1,000 IDP camps. There is one in front of the National Palace, there is one in front of my office. The camps are in the streets and anywhere where there was empty space. People live there because they have nowhere else to go. 

'We work with 20 camps in Port-au-Prince that have already been evicted or currently face eviction. This is just a small sample of the many camps that are pressured to leave because purported landowners want to get economic use of the land.'

We work with 20 camps in Port-au-Prince that have already been evicted or currently face eviction. This is just a small sample of the many camps that are pressured to leave because purported landowners want to get economic use of the land.

We are asking the government to verify the titles to the contested land before people are evicted, but this government works for the rich people. So there is no process in place to require that the purported landowners establish that they in fact have title to the land. The government allows the purported landowners to evict the people without providing any protection or legal process for the IDPs, and the landowners use the police to do it. These practices are illegal under both Haitian law and international law.  

CBC News: You've been critical about how the aid money coming from the international community has been misspent or corrupted. Can you tell me specifically which aid groups have been successful and which have been failures?

Mario Joseph: The groups that have been the most successful are those that have a history of working in Haiti and who involve Haitians in decision-making and service delivery. For example, we have a huge problem with health care, but the Boston-based NGO Partners in Health, which has worked in Haiti for 25 years, does great work in providing health care to the poor.

But [Partners in Health] alone cannot solve the full extent of the problem. We have problems with food and water. In Haiti, more than 40 per cent of schoolchildren aren't in school.

An example of something that has not worked is the provision of toilets in the camps. Around 30 per cent of camps don't have toilets at all. For the camps that do have them, there are long lines because there aren't enough, and they are not cleaned regularly. Despite the donations pledged for Haiti, humanitarian organizations have been unable to meet this most basic need.

The only thing we don't lack is poverty and misery.

CBC News: Canada claims to have already delivered $150 million in aid. Where do you think the money has gone?   Mario Joseph: I don't know. I saw on the internet that a large amount of money was [pledged], but I see nothing done in the camps. I see a lot of foreigners in Haiti. What they are doing? I don't know ….

When it rains in the camps, I see a mother make her son stand up all night because their tents flood and there is nowhere to sleep. The NGOs come in with cameras to show their work to the world, but there are protests against the NGOs in the camps because when NGOs bring aid, they don't bring enough. For example, if there are 2,000 people, they bring food for 50. Then there is disorder.

I heard that the Canadian government is the second biggest aid donor to Haiti. You need to investigate where the money is going and hold the Canadian government and Haitian governments accountable. If you give aid, you need to make sure the people in need get the aid.

CBC News: Are there any NGOs that you are especially critical of?

Mario Joseph: We have Red Cross and Oxfam and a lot of organizations. But they do nothing. We do see, in Leogane, a camp run by the Venezuelan government. They respect the rights of the people and deliver aid.

[Editor's note: Oxfam denies this characterization. For details of its work in Haiti see its website www.oxfam.ca. The Canadian Red Cross website is www.redcross.ca]

CBC News: How often do you visit the camps and how do you monitor them?

Mario Joseph: I work with more than 20 camps in Port-au-Prince, and my staff and I visit them in person. The BAI also has regular meetings of camp organizers, where we discuss their concerns.

Right now, we are focusing on camps where there are evictions. 

We work with international lawyers who have conducted fact-finding missions in the camps to record the conditions and incidents of forced evictions. I was just in the United States to testify before the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights and to bring our findings to their attention. We have also filed a petition to ask the commission to help bring a stop to the evictions.

CBC News: Let's turn to the elections. You've been critical of the process. You have said it probably shouldn't happen because it will be so flawed. Could you explain this?

Mario Joseph: The electoral process has been plagued with illegalities. The Provisional Electoral Council [CEP] excluded 14 political parties without providing any explanation or legal backing for this. Among those excluded was the biggest party, the Lavalas Party, and the people are now left without an effective choice.

'I don't know what Canadians would say if this happened in Canada but to me, it's not an election. It's a selection.'

I don't know what Canadians would say if this happened in Canada but to me, it's not an election. It's a selection.

And 300,000 people died in the earthquake. Yet the list of registered voters has not been updated to strike these names from the list. This opens up the doors for fraudulent voting.

These are not democratic elections, and if we move forward with the elections, we cannot claim that we are rebuilding Haiti on a solid foundation, one that is grounded in human rights.

CBC News: The shadow of [former president Jean-Bertrand] Aristide hangs over this election. What is the level of support for him in Haiti?

Mario Joseph: Aristide is still popular in Haiti. I am working with the people in the camps. We've been organizing protests and at some protests, people have been calling for Aristide's return. They say that if he was in Haiti, they wouldn't be in this situation. They still like Aristide and want him to return.

But he's in South Africa in exile. We don't know why President [Rene] Preval doesn't ask him to return. We wonder about that. Under Article 41 of the Haitian Constitution, no Haitian can be forced into exile from Haiti. Yet, former president Aristide has been unable to obtain a Haitian passport.  

CBC News: What was your relationship with Aristide? Were you a colleague or supporter of his party, Fanmi Lavalas?

Mario Joseph: My office, [Bureau des Avocats Internationaux] works with poor people. We are devoted to doing that. And Fanmi Lavalas is popular among the poor people. So naturally, I have some friends in the Lavalas Party.

In Haiti, people say I'm a Lavalas man, a Lavalas lawyer. But I'm not. I have never received a mandate from Lavalas to represent them.

In 2004, I represented a lot of political prisoners who were members of the Lavalas Party, including ministers, some mayors, deputies, senators and grassroots activists. These people were arrested without accusations, without a legal basis. This was a violation of human rights, regardless of political leaning.

CBC News:  How broad is the support for the Fanmi Lavalas party?

Mario Joseph: If we look back to 2006 to the election of Rene Preval, Lavalas supporters voted for Preval because they thought he would bring Aristide home [from exile in South Africa]. That's why Preval won the election.

If Lavalas was allowed to participate this election, it would win. Lavalas has won every election it has participated in. 

Some candidates say they are pro-Lavalas, like Leslie Voltaire and others. But they flip-flop in their policies.

Whatever happens, election or not, we'll have a crisis. I don't know why Canada got involved with this. Canada is spending $6 million on these flawed elections. Canadian taxpayers should question their government on why these elections are supported.    

CBC News: Are there any presidential candidates that you would support?

Mario Joseph: No, none of the candidates have shown the will to improve the lives of the poor in Haiti. This is not a time for elections, this is a time to come together to change the old system, which does not work for the vast majority of Haitians. 

CBC News: Do you think there will be mass protests in the country or violence during the elections?

Mario Joseph: It is my fear that there will be unrest and violence. We already have a lot of protests in front of the [Conseil Provisoire Electoral / CEP], National Palace, prime minister's office. My fear is that the authorities could open fire on protesters. It won't be the first time that this has happened.

'Democracy in Haiti is further threatened by an occupation force: the so-called UN peacekeepers. They are not peacekeepers, they are there to reinforce the coup that ousted president Aristide in 2004.'

Democracy in Haiti is further threatened by an occupation force: the so-called UN peacekeepers. They are not peacekeepers, they are there to reinforce the coup that ousted president Aristide in 2004. Under the pretext of "peace and security," they were brought in shortly after the coup, and instead of supporting Aristide's right to return, they were put in place to ensure that the Haitian people did not rise up to bring back their democratically elected president.

This election will be a crisis whether it happens on Nov. 28 or not.

CBC News: Are you leading some of these protests?

Mario Joseph: Yes.

Some organizations are doing a survey about the voter turnout. The turnout is expected to be even lower than in 2009, when the turnout was three per cent. And now cholera threatens the Haitian population. Asking people to turn out to vote in these conditions is cynical. 

Can an election in this environment be called democratic and legitimate? I don't know why Canadians gave money for this election.

CBC News: The UN envoy is Bill Clinton and his deputy is Paul Farmer, a great friend of Haiti. How would you assess the efforts of the UN?

Mario Joseph: I don't know if Haiti has friends. Some people say, 'I'm a friend,' like Canada. But, is Canada our friend if it is supporting these elections? Canada has interests in supporting imperialism in Haiti. But this does not make Canada our friend.      Clinton leads a commission with the prime minister, the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission. It's not transparent. We don't know what it's doing.

We need action, but I don't think Clinton has any real idea about how to rebuild Haiti. When he comes to Haiti he stays in hotels and goes to National Palace, he does not see or talk to the suffering people.

CBC News: The Clinton mantra about Haiti is "build back better." What, for you, are the priorities?

Mario Joseph: The first priority has to be to remove the rubble.

The second thing is to relocate the camps and the people in camps, but their human rights must be respected in the process. For example, give them health care, because cholera is a threat. Give them potable water to prevent diseases. 

clinton-haiti-camp-306

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton greets residents as he walks through the 55,000-resident tent camp at the Petionville Club run by the J/P Haitian Relief Organization in Port au Prince on Oct. 6, 2010. (Allison Shelley/Reuters)

Give them jobs, real jobs. Bill Clinton wants to invest in textiles, but textiles will do nothing in Haiti right now. These factories help rich people, while the workers barely make enough to survive. 

In the long term, we must build up Haiti's agricultural sector and make it sustainable. Our agricultural sector still employs methods used three centuries ago. We need to improve that and support the domestic markets.

Middle-class people need access to loans. I'm a lawyer, but I've never been able to take out a loan in Haiti. Only rich people can access credit. 

Finally, we need a comprehensive education system, not a system for the rich and then another for the rest. Forty per cent of school-age children are not in school because they can't afford it.

CBC News: You say that one big problem is that Haitians are not making their own decisions. You say that the NGOs are running the country. Is there a credible leadership base, in your view, that is ready to take the lead?

Mario Joseph: Yes, there is. But the bad people are silencing the honest people. We need to let the honest people rise and push for social justice. That is why a democratic election is so critical.

CBC News: I have read about your work as a lawyer, but can you tell me about your biography and your commitment to working with the poor? How did you come to your work?

Mario Joseph: I was born in a very poor family in Gonaïves, a remote area in the north of Haiti. I went to school because of a miracle. There are no schools in the remote areas, but I was able to go to a missionary school run by missionaries from Ohio.

After that, I completed my higher education in Port-au-Prince. I got a scholarship to be a teacher and then I returned to my village to work.

I saw a lot of violations of human rights because of the poverty. This motivated me to become a lawyer. I finished law school in the 1990s.

I began my legal work with a Catholic human rights organization, and this influenced me to do human rights law. I started working at the BAI in 1996. 

CBC News: How dangerous is it for you to do your human rights work in Haiti ?

Mario Joseph: I am in danger all the time. Six years ago I started to lose all my hair - since 2004 my family and I have been threatened repeatedly.

My family had to leave Haiti and now has political asylum in Miami.

I continue to get a lot of threats. If you are against landowners and the elite, it's dangerous.

I have received threats of kidnapping, and my office has been shot at. When I think the situation is really bad, I go to friends' houses and sleep there.

It's really tough to live this way, but the work must continue.