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Disaster Law Project

DLP and Advocacy Partners Raise Concerns With UN Security Council About “Sexual Exploitation and Abuse” Related to Proposed Intervention in Haiti

A coalition of human rights organizations led by DLP raised concern about the risk of “sexual exploitation and abuse” related to proposed calls for armed intervention in Haiti.

In a letter to UN Security Council Members, the group states:

“Though we hold varying positions on the appropriateness of an armed intervention in Haiti, we share a common concern regarding systemic failures to safeguard women and children from rape and other forms of abuse during prior interventions. We therefore call on member states to ensure that SEA is addressed through appropriate accountability mechanisms, should authorization be given for international armed intervention in Haiti.”

The full text of the letter is below:

______________________________________

Joint Letter to Ambassadors Representing Members of the UN Security Council

December 09, 2022

RE: Proposed Armed Intervention in Haiti; Accountability for Sexual Exploitation and Abuse

Dear Ambassadors: 

We are writing in response to the Secretary General’s call for armed intervention in Haiti, following a request from Haiti’s de facto Prime Minister Ariel Henry for international assistance to address the country’s ongoing humanitarian and security crisis.

We are a coalition of human rights advocates, including Haitian organizations, that work to advance women’s rights and equality. Many of us have worked directly on issues related to accountability for sexual exploitation and abuse [“SEA”] perpetrated by foreign military and humanitarian actors. Though we hold varying positions on the appropriateness of an armed intervention in Haiti, we share a common concern regarding systemic failures to safeguard women and children from rape and other forms of abuse during prior interventions. We therefore call on member states to ensure that SEA is addressed through appropriate accountability mechanisms, should authorization be given for international armed intervention in Haiti.

SEA is a recurring problem in peacekeeping and security interventions. Between 2004 and 2016, the UN received nearly 2000 reports of child rape, armed sexual assault, and transactional sex involving UN peacekeepers deployed from 20 different countries, across multiple peacekeeping missions. Allegations have also been made against personnel deployed outside of UN peacekeeping operations. Incidents in both contexts are more common than reported, prosecutions are rare, and victims seldom have access to effective legal remedies or social support. 

As the UN has acknowledged, peacekeeping operations in Haiti rank among the highest in the world for recorded incidents of SEA. “MINUSTAH” personnel routinely engaged in exploitive relationships with Haitian women living in extreme poverty and deprivation, and coerced children into having sex in exchange for a few coins or a piece of bread. Media investigations show that hundreds of women and girls became pregnant as a result – some as young as 11 years old – and gave birth to children ultimately abandoned by peacekeepers who fathered them. These incidents often occurred against the backdrop of a deadly cholera epidemic also linked to the presence of MINUSTAH peacekeepers.    

Women impregnated by peacekeepers have been rejected by their families and stigmatized within their communities for giving birth to “petit minustah” – depriving them of critical social support, and forcing many to resort to “survival sex” to meet their basic needs. Meanwhile, forums to establish paternity or to petition for child support remain out of reach for most Haitian victims of peacekeeper exploitation and abuse.  

MINUSTAH contingents were also accused of committing depraved and humiliating acts of sexual violence against children, often without facing meaningful consequences. A group of peacekeepers reportedly gang-raped a teenage boy while filming the assault on a cell-phone. Members of a foreign police unit allegedly raped a 13 year-old repeatedly over the course of a year, then kidnapped the boy to prevent him from speaking with investigators. More than 130 peacekeepers participated in a child sex-ring that involved children as young as 12 being passed from one peacekeeper to the next, and forced to have sex several times a day, with multiple men – including senior military officers. The UN repatriated several troops implicated in the abuse, but continued to receive personnel from the contributing country into peacekeeping missions. According to media reports, none of the responsible troops were criminally prosecuted.

There is a lack of clarity on what form an armed intervention in Haiti would take if it is approved, or which countries would contribute participating personnel. But the history of SEA associated with MINUSTAH demonstrates the need to center accountability in any future international deployment to Haiti, whether or not the deployment is an official UN peacekeeping mission. 

This week commemorates16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence.” In line with that effort, we call on member states to ensure accountability for SEA by requiring that any resolution to approve armed intervention in Haiti include the following conditions: 

  1. An express acknowledgement that SEA falls outside the scope of UN official duties, which renders legal immunity inapplicable to related claims;
  2. Implementation of an independent and accessible mechanism for receiving complaints of sexual exploitation and abuse;
  3. A demonstrated commitment from contributing countries to meaningfully investigate claims of sexual exploitation and abuse, prosecute credible claims, and facilitate access to civil remedies and restitution; 
  4. Implementation of mechanisms to determine paternity that are easily accessible at no cost to mothers claiming that their child was fathered by foreign personnel; 
  5. An agreement by member states to impose and enforce parental obligations from personnel found to have fathered children, and to enforce relevant foreign judgments; and
  6. Full transparency regarding funding and spending of the Office of the Victims’ Rights Advocates and the “Victims Trust Fund” on matters related to SEA in Haiti, including a full financial and operational after-action audit that is publicly available.

There is no question that current conditions in Haiti are not sustainable for local populations. But an armed international response that risks repeating the harms associated with past interventions demonstrates the need for adequate safeguards to address the prevalence of, and lack of accountability for, SEA in Haiti.  

Sincerely,

AIDS-Free World’s Code Blue Campaign

Ansara Family Fund

Beyond Borders

Bureau Des Avocats Internationaux

Cashman Family Foundation

Center for Constitutional Rights

Center for Gender and Refugee Studies

Congregation of the Mission

Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul

Diaspora Community Services

Dignity Rights International 

Disaster Law Project

Dorothy Estrada-Tanck, Faculty of Law, University of Murcia, Spain

Edmund Rice International

Gender Action

Global Labor Justice  – International Labor Rights Forum

Highland Park United Methodist Church

Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

International Human Rights Clinic, Harvard Law School

International Human Rights Program (IHRP), University of Toronto Faculty of Law

International Presentation Association

Li Li Li Read 

Manifest Haiti

NDSC (Les Religieuses de Notre-Dame du Sacré Coeur)

Project South

Quixote Center

School Sisters of Notre Dame, Atlantic-Midwest Province

School Sisters of Notre Dame, Central-Pacific Province

Sisters of Charity Federation

Sisters of Charity of Nazareth Congregational Leadership

Sisters of Charity of Nazareth Western Province Leadership

Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur

The Episcopal Church

Upendra Dev Acharya, Professor of Law & Director of Global Legal Education, Gonzaga University Law School

Climate Injustice and US Obligations under the Convention Against All Forms of Racial Discrimination

The Disaster Law Project collaborated with the National Low Income Housing Coalition in submitting recommendations to the UN Committee charged with monitoring US compliance with treaty obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

We urged the CERD Committee to focus attention on structural inequalities that combine to increase climate vulnerability in certain communities:

“The U.S. review provides an opportunity not only to address income inequality, racial discrimination, and disaster response failures as independent treaty violations, but to bring those factors together, highlight their interdependence, and center racial discrimination as a determining cause of climate vulnerability that warrants scrutiny under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination [ICERD].”

Historical legacies of formal discrimination combine with structural barriers to income equality in ways that disproportionaltely burden communities of color in terms of exposure to climate change, and the prospect of a full disaster recovery. To address these concerns, we suggeted the Committee examine the US role in:

  • Creating climate vulnerability by failing to fully acknowledge and remedy the most extreme and obvious examples of racial injustice, including race-based enslavement, Native American “removal,” and colonial exploitation of island territories.
  • Perpetuating climate vulnerability among households of color by failing to remedy ongoing income and housing disparities.
  • Deepening climate vulnerability by making it harder for households of color to recover from a disaster.
  • Failing to protect the rule of law following a disaster.”

Read the letter below:

Monkeypox: The WHO isn’t even close to declaring an ‘international emergency’ – yet.

Photo: Dado Ruvic/Reuters

COVID-19 is far from over, and we are hearing news about monkeypox outbreaks in more than a dozen countries. That’s unsettling, for sure, but from a global health security perspective, monkeypox and COVID-19 don’t raise the same concerns – at least not yet. And despite some chatter to the contrary, the WHO isn’t even close to declaring monkeypox an international health emergency.

Friday morning, news circulated on some well-known twitter accounts that the WHO had convened a committee of experts to decide whether to declare monkeypox an international emergency. Only it had not. In actuality, the WHO convened a “Strategic and Technical Advisory Group” to advise on medical developments, and strategies for preparedness and response related to monkeypox. To be sure, the group does scan the horizon for potential global health threats, and in that way provides an early warning system of sorts. But today’s meeting won’t result in a declared monkeypox emergency; that’s not what STAG does. 

We have to wait and see whether the WHO convenes its “Emergency Committee” – that’s the group authorized under international health regulations to advise the Director General on whether to declare a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. 

Even if the EC is called together, however, the outcome will still be hard to predict because they’ll have to consider not only the seriousness of the disease, but whether it is spreading across international borders. That a disease is “present” in different countries won’t automatically trigger an emergency declaration, especially if those countries can treat and contain the disease on their own. Reports that a patient in Massachusetts contracted monkeypox in Canada, for example, would certainly interest the committee, but they’ll want to know more about how and where it is spreading – did that patient contract it in Canada and simply come to the US for treatment, or is there an indication that the disease is spreading across the border? In 2013, the emergency committee declined to declare an emergency after MERS was reported in a number of countries, primarily because most cases were confined to hospitals.

The WHO has convened the EC 9 times, and it has declared 6 international public health emergencies. International Health Regulations provide criteria to guide the committee’s decision, but deliberations are confidential, and the basis for the committee’s action is often unclear. The Committee waited months before declaring an emergency for ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and of course came under scrutiny for delaying its response to COVID-19 in 2020. Those delays cost lives, so it’s possible a committee called together to consider monkeypox would feel pressure to move quickly. But at the same time, it would have to balance the likelihood that once an emergency is declared, countries will move to impose measures that will impact travel and trade – measures that might range from simple guidance and medical advice, to screening questions, to outright travel bars as we saw during COVID. The most aggressive travel restrictions can be useful in the short run, but can crush the economies of countries that rely on trade and tourism, especially those with fragile economies and limited health capacities – making it harder to contain the disease in the long run. More than $2 billion was lost in west Africa following the 2014-16 ebola outbreak, due in part to travel and trade restrictions.

Institutional considerations will also come into play. The EC routinely cautions against travel restrictions in response to an international health emergency, but countries frequently disregard those recommendations, and implement travel restrictions anyway. And the WHO doesn’t have a formal mechanism to enforce compliance – it’s an honor system, by and large. So every time the EC declares a public health emergency, it risks a reaction from member states that could undermine the legitimacy of the WHO. That’s a significant consideration for an institution that relies on trust and voluntary cooperation from member states in order to address public health emergencies.

Puerto Rico Civil Society Renews Calls for Equitable Recovery Following Governor’s Ouster

Image via Time.com

With Governor Rossello on the way out, federal officials see an opening for top-down control of Hurricane Maria recovery.

Not so fast:

“The federal government’s own track record is marked by missteps. Thousands are still waiting on FEMA for help they have a right to receive, while others risk losing their homes under a federally approved action plan. Consolidating power at the top will only deliver more of the same. What’s needed now is a major course correction that puts power where it belongs: squarely in the hands of the people of Puerto Rico.”

Our statement here: https://nlihc.org/news/leaders-disaster-housing-recovery-coalition-call-congress-support-equitable-recovery-puerto?fbclid=IwAR2LbzgccIs842olBz35gnleB2GKKR6p2eBta2EIdkCLh-SSaccQxP4qBAQ

FEMA Agrees to Re-open Homeowner Claims in Puerto Rico

Collective advocacy works!

The Disaster Law Project has been supporting advocates in Puerto Rico in their efforts to make sure that homeowners who survived Hurricane Maria receive the assistance they are entitled to by law. Up to 70,000 homeowners were wrongly denied FEMA benefits because the agency required proof of ownership that either was not available, or did not exist under Puerto Rico law.

After months of back and forth, FEMA agreed to take certain steps in line with our demands. Specifically, the agency will:

  • contact individual homeowners whose application was wrongly denied to advise that they have an opportunity to re-file their claim;
  • notify homeowners that they can fill out a Sworn Declaration, and submit additional documentation to establish home-ownership;
  • waive certain filing deadlines that would otherwise bar an appeal, and;
  • direct applicants to legal aid organizations that can provide additional assistance.

Our job now is to make sure FEMA lives up to it promise so that eligible home-owners can finally start to rebuild.

UPDATE: a bill introduced by Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-NY 13) would avoid these problems in future disasters. The Housing Survivors of Major Disasters Act of 2019 would expand the type of evidence disaster survivors could rely on to establish home-ownership, and would make benefits available to people who occupy otherwise unused property, or are homeless. A summary of the bill is  here; full text here

“These groups are similarly situated, and FEMA has no compelling justification for treating them differently.”

Related imageIn the wake of Superstorm Sandy, FEMA reached out to 144,000 East-coast homeowners whose flood claims were wrongly denied, giving them a second chance to access the recovery help they needed, and were entitled by law to receive.  

We want to know why FEMA won’t do the same for homeowners in Puerto Rico.  

Read our letter to Congress demanding immediate transparency and outreach from FEMA:

“[We] are deeply concerned that FEMA has wrongly denied property repair and replacement assistance to qualified homeowners under its Individuals and Households Program [IHP], which helps low-income survivors meet their basic needs. FEMA has refused to notify individual applicants of the Agency’s error and to clarify the process it will use to review resubmitted benefit applications going forward. Without explanation, FEMA maintains that it will not notify individual homeowners wrongly denied benefits following Hurricane Maria, even though it did notify nearly twice as many individual homeowners wrongly denied insurance payouts following Superstorm Sandy. These groups are similarly situated, and FEMA has no compelling justification for treating them differently.”

Thousands in Puerto Rico Wrongly Denied FEMA Aid: We’re Working to Fix That

Isamar holds her nine-month-old baby at their makeshift home in San Isidro, Puerto Rico, on December 23rd, 2017.

More than 75,000 low-income homeowners in Puerto Rico are still waiting for help to rebuild their homes, more than a year after Hurricane Maria swept the island. FEMA initially rejected their application for benefits because these applicants did not present a registered certificate of title to prove they owned the damaged property.

But these applicants did own their home under Puerto Rico law. They either acquired it through inheritance, or through a process of “prescription,” which typically involves someone making use of an abandoned building or land. Puerto Rico doesn’t require this type of property to be registered in order to establish ownership.

FEMA denied them anyway.

Thanks to the work of local advocates, FEMA finally agreed that these applicants should have been recognized as property owners all along, and will allow them to re-apply for benefits using a “Sworn Declaration” to verify ownership. But because FEMA has refused to notify individual applicants of these new developments, thousands of homeowners may never know their benefits were wrongly denied, and will continue to lose out on critical recovery assistance they are entitled by law to receive.

What we want is simple: FEMA must notify individual applicants that their benefits were denied due to the Agency’s mistake, and give them a meaningful opportunity to reapply. By one count, that’s about 77,000 homeowners. We know FEMA can do this, because it’s done it before.

Between 2012 and 2015, thousands of homeowners on the East-coast were wrongly denied insurance payouts following Superstorm Sandy. FEMA set up a claims review process to make things right, and notified 144,000 individual homeowners of the opportunity to participate in that process. That’s about twice the number of applicants wrongly denied benefits in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria. If FEMA can reach out to individual homeowners on the East-coast, why can’t it reach out to similarly situated homeowners in Puerto Rico? We’ve yet to hear a compelling reason.

We’ll continue to work with organizations like Fundacion Fondo de Acceso a la Justicia, Ayuda Legal Puerto Rico, Servicios Legales de Puerto Rico, and others, until this problem is solved. In our Letter to Congress delivered on Monday, members of the NLIHC’s Disaster Housing Recovery Coalition asked for legislative oversight to ensure that FEMA is properly administering the nation’s disaster recovery program, and affording all hurricane survivors, wherever the storm strikes, to effective and equal treatment.

– Kathleen Bergin

Photo credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images

UK Hearings Today On Sex Abuse in the Aid Sector

Following up on my earlier post, the UK Parliament’s International Development Committee held hearings this morning on sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector.

A video link of the 90 minute proceeding is here.

Testimony was provided by Asmita Naik, Independent Consultant with extensive experience within the aid sector and the UN, and Helen Evans, Former Global Head of Safeguarding at Oxfam GB.

More than 40 submissions were received as written evidence.  The full list is here.

Our submission, a collaboration between the DLP, IJDH, and Doughty Street Chambers, is here.  We are calling for an on-the-ground independent review beyond the capacity of the IDC, to investigate how safeguarding policies and procedures are being implemented in the field.  We also emphasize the need for stronger and more transparent Codes of Conduct, safer and more accessible reporting mechanisms, and referrals of criminal/civil violations to authorities in the host country, and other countries with jurisdiction over such matters.

See my twitter feed for a real-time summary of testimony: @disaster_lawyer

 

-Kathleen Bergin

 

UK’s Special Inquiry on Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in the Aid Sector

Following revelations of sexual misconduct by Oxfam personnel in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, the UK Parliament’s International Development Committee initiated a special inquiry into sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector.

DLP submitted recommendations in collaboration with The Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, and Doughty Street Chambers.

Hearings at the IDC in London begin today, but procedural rules require that all submissions remain confidential until they are accepted as evidence, which we understand becomes official tomorrow.

Until then, you can find a preview of our recommendations via this link, and pasted below.  

I will post any hearing updates on twitter.

SEXUAL EXPLOITATION AND ABUSE IN THE HUMANITARIAN AID SECTOR REQUIRES INDEPENDENT, SECTOR-WIDE INQUIRY

 

 

A coalition of lawyers from the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), the Disaster Law Project (DLP) and Doughty Street Chambers has submitted a joint submission to the International Development Committee (IDC) inquiry on sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) and related misconduct in the humanitarian aid sector. The submission sets out key changes necessary to establish effective safeguarding processes and strengthen accountability in the sector, and calls for an independent, external sector-wide inquiry.

 

“The IDC’s inquiry is an important first step, but an in-depth independent inquiry is necessary to reveal the scope of the problem, analyse how safeguarding practice are operating on the ground and ensure accountability” said Nicole Phillips, Staff Attorney with IJDH and one of the submission’s authors. “An independent inquiry is an opportunity for the UK to lead globally in ending abuse and impunity in the aid sector and rebuilding public confidence. This goes far beyond Oxfam” she continued.

 

The submission was made following a meeting of the Haiti All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) chaired by Lord Griffiths in March, where Brian Concannon, Executive Director of IJDH and Jennifer Robinson of Doughty Street Chambers, spoke alongside Nick Roseveare, Director of International Programmes at Oxfam. At that meeting, Concannon emphasised that the Oxfam scandal is merely “the visible tip of the iceberg” and that the entire international aid sector is in the same boat with Oxfam over safeguarding, stating “and it’s sinking…If they don’t fix the boat, then it will sink.”

 

Both Concannon and Robinson emphasised the need for an independent sector-wide inquiry at the APPG, a position also welcomed by Oxfam. At least 23 organisations have been reported to have been implicated in SEA in Haiti, the Ivory Coast and Sudan. Robinson said that a sector-wide review would have greater credibility with the public; would better protect Oxfam’s reputation and the reputation of other aid organisations and would be far more cost efficient than if each aid organisation conducted its own internal review. While the Charities Commission investigation into Oxfam is welcomed, Robinson said that “an organisation-specific approach is not going to have the sector-wide impact that it needs to have”.

 

The Haiti All Party Parliamentary Group meeting participants, which included Lord Bates, Minister of State at the Department for International Development, were receptive to the proposals and encouraged a submission to the IDC.

 

In addition to explaining the need for a broader inquiry beyond the IDC and proposing models which DFID could fund, the submission draws the Committee’s attention to key deficiencies in existing safeguarding policies, with a particular focus on organisations’ Codes of Conduct and grievance mechanisms. The submission calls upon IDC to make recommendations to:

 

  • strengthen cooperation between humanitarian actors and local authorities in criminal and civil actions;
  • compel organizations to clearly define and expressly prohibit SEA, violations of domestic law, staff misconduct, and other actionable program concerns in a Code of Conduct; and
  • require grievance mechanisms that are transparent, accessible, secure, and capable of providing victims with an adequate remedy.

The work of IDC and any subsequent independent inquiry to “must consider misconduct towards both staff and beneficiaries, hear directly from affected communities and address not only sexual abuse but other misconduct like physical violence and corruption” said Phillips. “All abuse in the aid sector is unacceptable.”

 

Reports from the Haiti APPG can be found here and here.

 

Contacts:

 

Jennifer Robinson, Barrister, Doughty Street Chambers, j.robinson@doughtystreet.co.uk, +442074041313 (London, UK)

 

Nicole Phillips, Staff Attorney, Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti, nicole@ijdh.org, +509-4645-2888 (Port-au-Prince, Haiti)

 

Kathleen Bergin, Director, Disaster Law Project, kathleen.bergin@gmail.com, +1 857-222-6176 (Ithaca, USA)

 

There’s Still Time To Apply For Disaster Benefits In Puerto Rico: 5 Things To Know

If you’re in Puerto Rico, you now have until June 18 to apply for disaster benefits.

Image result for puerto rico images

This is the second time FEMA extended the filing deadline, giving applicants nearly 9 months to submit a claim. That might seem like a long time, but it makes sense given FEMA’s slow start and lingering recovery roadblocks. FEMA took weeks to open the first Disaster Recovery Center where survivors could apply in person, and widespread power outages made it impossible for people who couldn’t reach a DRC to apply by phone or on-line.
Things are improving, certainly, and FEMA so far has processed about 1.2 million applications for individual and household benefits. But with roughly 150,000 customers still waiting for electricity, it’s impossible to say that everyone’s had a fair opportunity to apply.
FEMA has the authority to extend the deadline again, but my hunch says it won’t. By comparison, FEMA accepted applications for 6 months following Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, but we’re nearing a month past that point already for Hurricane Maria.
Moreover, even if Puerto Rico’s Governor, Ricardo Rossello, formally requests an extension (which he’d have to before one is granted), FEMA could reject the request if it’s satisfied with the pace of progress and number of applications received between now and then.
So apply as soon as you can – here’s how:

  • On-line at www.disasterassistance.gov;
  • Via phone at 1-800-621-3362 (voice, 711/VRS); 800-462-7585 (TDD); or
  • In person at a Disaster Recovery Center (find one scroll to the bottom of this page).

This FEMA FAQs sheet provides more information, and a video link that walks you through the process of filing and tracking your application. Take a look, but here are five additional tips to keep in mind – offered as info, of course, not actual legal advice:

1. Get help from a lawyer by calling 1-800-310-7029. That’s the number for the Disaster Legal Hotline, a service set up by the Young Lawyers Division of the American Bar Association and their pro-bono partners. Leave your basic info, and they’ll connect you with a lawyer who’s done this kind of thing before. The lawyer can answer questions you have about the application process, work with FEMA on your behalf, and help file an appeal if you’re denied or awarded less than you expected. It’s free for most people who call.

Continue reading “There’s Still Time To Apply For Disaster Benefits In Puerto Rico: 5 Things To Know”

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