Why Rights?

[JIDH needs to raise $20,000 by March 31st to finish the budget year on target. Support them here.]


In the years before the earthquake, foreigners often talked about two ways to “fix Haiti.” In the first, the Western powers would build a new country piece by piece…The second was an even sicker joke: drop a nuclear bomb and start over….The scenarios were two sides of the same coin–the idea that only a transformative, external force could solve Haiti.

  –Jonathan Katz, The Big Truck That Went By.


I put the students in my Bioethics course in difficult situations. I asked them to collectively decide how they would respond if they worked with a small, country clinic in Haiti when AIDS first arrived. What should they do with their limited time and budget? How should you think about a problem like this?   We talked about Quality Life Years and cost-effectiveness. We discussed ways to promote community autonomy and respect the rights of the people involved. Each idea pulled on a different student. They interpreted them differently. They thought creatively about fulfilling their ethical responsibilities. One aspect, however, was left out. No one brought up responding to injustice.

We discussed injustice. We talked about slavery, Haiti’s “debt” to the French, the American occupation, and US influence on Haitian elections. We talked about how treatments considered essential in the “First World” are considered too expensive in the “Third World.” The students were appalled. Yet, when it came time to respond, no one looked at the injustice. No one asked how we could rectify these injustices. No one wanted to think about it. When it came time to act, no one suggested we allocate resources to repair the historical injustice.

News is coming out of Haiti faster than I can keep up these days. Little of it is good. The US and UN push for quicker elections, neglecting the allegations of fraud in the earlier rounds. Guy Philipe threatens civil war. Zika arrived in Haiti. We won’t know it’s precise toll for some time, but it won’t be good. The poorest and most vulnerable will suffer the worst, as always. Talk about developing a vaccine will provide little comfort to people who cannot access vaccines as it is.  Cholera continues to kill. The UN continues to claim they have no responsibility. The court case advanced when IJDH was given the opportunity to make arguments. The UN’s own experts criticized the UN’s response. Progress, but cholera continues to kill.

As long as we look at these individual problems as ours to solve, we repeat the pattern Katz observed. We’re the outside force seeking to transform Haiti. But what else can we be? What else can someone with no Haitian ancestry be when he or she tries to help Haiti? What else can we do except walk away?

We can fight injustice.We can help protect fundamental human rights. When we promote the autonomy of Haitian individuals and communities, they can transform Haiti. By educating Haitians about their rights and helping them access the courts, we can allow them to press for their priorities. We can repair the systems broken by a history of injustice by creating a system that values Haitian autonomy, both individually and collectively.



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