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.  


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

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:

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

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

The Jones Act Waiver for Puerto Rico Expires Today – Now What?

Show of hands: who here knew about the Jones Act before Vox ran a headline after Hurricane Maria?

Image result for puerto rico shipping port imagesIf you said yes, then you’re probably a maritime lawyer or shipping magnate – in which case, welcome!

If you said no, then you’re more like me – and I’m a lawyer who cut my teeth on a pretty major catastrophe in the Caribbean.  So don’t sweat it.

Anyway, I won’t belabor the details of the Jones Act now that we’re all arm-chair experts.  Besides, the purpose of this post is to explain proposed legislation that aims to reform or repeal the Act in the wake of Hurricane Maria.

But first we need to highlight some basics for friends who just climbed on board.  So let’s dive in.

The Jones Act is THIS bad

By most accounts, the Jones Act is a disaster for Puerto Rico that helped plunge the island into debt, and push the cost of living higher than most major metro areas in the US.  According to one study, it has drained $17 billion from the island economy over 20 years.

Related imageEverything from apples to i-phones are more expensive because of the Act.  Basic necessities are about to get even pricier now that Hurricane Maria destroyed the supply chain but accelerated demand.  That’s an incalculable burden for most Puerto Rico consumers whose annual income averages $18,000 per year.

Here’s how it works

The Jones Act stipulates

Continue reading “The Jones Act Waiver for Puerto Rico Expires Today – Now What?”

Rossello and Cruz sing different tunes on Puerto Rico recovery. It’s all stagecraft – and it make perfect sense.

A question posted on a FB Disaster group I belong to asked why #PuertoRico governor Ricardo Rossello and San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz are sending different messages on the federal recovery effort after Hurricane Maria.  Rossello’s praising FEMA and chumming up with Trump, while Cruz is using the word “genocide” to describe the administration’s incompetence and neglect that is ratcheting up the death toll with each passing day.

Image result for carmen yulin cruz hurricane imagesRossello and Cruz sound worlds apart, but they’re living through the same catastrophe, and I guarantee they’re actually on the same page.  The rest is political stage-craft, and it makes sense.

Here’s an edit of my FB post:


Folks here surely know more about Puerto Rico than I do, but the visuals of Rossello v Cruz right now are a mirror image of Louisiana Gov Kathleen Blanco and NOLA Mayor Ray Nagin post-Katrina.

It’s about two things: money and politics.

Image result for rossello trump hurricane imagesRossello and Cruz have different roles under the Stafford Act, 43 USC 5121, which governs how disaster declarations are made, how much Washington will bill PR for the costs of recovery, and how the money is distributed.

They also have different political constituencies. Rossello represents a mix of urban and rural voters spread across the island. Cruz represents voters in San Juan. His base is broader, both geographically and politically. Her’s is more cohesive.

So Rossello has to dance more closely with the feds than Cruz because he’s the one who makes requests to Washington. He needs to stay in Trump’s good graces to get more money and resources.

Politically, he also wants credit for rescue and recovery efforts that might be taking place in certain areas, in order to maintain voter support in those regions. He wants those voters focused on the progress happening right in front of them, not the lack of progress elsewhere – and certainly not asking why *more* isn’t getting done in their own neighborhoods. If he starts complaining loudly, his constituents might grow impatient and start to change their perspective -folks who are *ok* might start to demand more from the government, and if he can’t deliver he’ll lose their support. He’s already getting hit on social media for everything that’s going wrong, so this is a real risk.

So for Rossello, it’s is all about playing nice and managing expectations.

Cruz on the other hand is one additional step removed from Washington. The money will go to PR first in terms of loans and grants, then trickle down to San Juan. So she has to be nice to Rossello, not Trump, DHS, or FEMA. And as I alluded to above, her constituents are more or less all in the same boat – she doesn’t have to play both sides of the recovery coin.

And in all likelihood, I’d bet their scripts are coordinated. Cruz has been sleeping on a cot for 8 days. Rossello doesn’t want to take the blame for that. He wants Trump to take the hit as much as Cruz does.





Turkey and the Death Penalty: Why International Law Prohibits Capital Punishment Even After the Failed Coup

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to reinstate the death penalty in response to the failed coup on July 15.  It’s been over 30 years since Turkey lawfully executed anyone, and in 2004, pursuant to a constitutional overhaul predicated on Turkey’s hopes of joining the EU, capital punishment was officially taken off the books. flag_of_turkey-svg

But the coup attempt emboldened Erdogan and other hardliners in the AKP, Turkey’s ruling political party that has origins in religious fundamentalism, and which at times seems increasingly ambivalent to the EU.  Despite monetary reforms that opened the economy, reduced national debt and increased personal spending, the AKP has dragged its feet on human rights.  It has blocked social media sites, curbed the sale and consumption of alcohol, and flirted with the idea of criminalizing adultery.  It sacked judges and detained journalists.  It tortures prisoners.

The accession process nonetheless plodded along, showing that enough members of the EU, tentatively at least, believed Turkey would eventually come around.  That bet was risky from the start, and the AKP gave Europe few assurances after the coup attempt when it summarily removed or detained more than 80,000 people from government, military and civic institutions – including relatives of individuals the AKP suspected of sympathizing with coup supporters.  That number continues to grow.

Turkey declared a state of emergency on July 20, followed by an announcement that it would suspend both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights [ICCPR] and the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms [ECHR].  So what does all of this mean for the death penalty?

It’s hard to know whether Erdogan is serious or saber-rattling (though my bet is on the latter).  But even if he is sincere and Turkey lawfully suspended the ECHR and ICCPR, it can’t reinstate the death penalty without violating international law.  Here’s why:

  1. Human Rights Commitments. Turkey is a party to both the ICCPR and the ECHR.  The substantive rights protected by these instruments overlap to some extent.  The ECHR defines a narrower set of rights than the ICCPR, however, but is somewhat easier to enforce.  Neither instrument expressly prohibits the death penalty, though both recognize a fundamental “right to life,” and prohibit “inhumane or degrading” punishment.  Continue reading “Turkey and the Death Penalty: Why International Law Prohibits Capital Punishment Even After the Failed Coup”

Cholera in Haiti: UN Accountability Under The Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement

Uncontrolled vomiting hits first, along with profuse, watery diarrhea.  Within minutes, your body begins to dehydrate, your muscles will clench and cripple.  Your kidneys will fail next.  Then your brain goes into a coma, and your body goes into shock.  You’ll come out of it though, eventually, if you find treatment right away.  But if you can’t find treatment, you could die.  If treatment comes too late, you could die.  If the symptoms strike so fast that you have no idea what hit, it’s likely you will die.cholera - 5

This is cholera, a disease that has infected close to a million people in Haiti, and depending on which numbers you credit, has killed between 10,000 and 30,000.  Though easily prevented and treated, its onset is sometimes so sudden and severe that victims can die of systemic shock within an hour of the first stomach cramp.
Not a trace of cholera in Haiti had been reported in more than a century worth of health data.  But it exploded upon arrival in October, 2010.  One hospital near the epicenter of the outbreak admitted more than 400 cholera patients in a single day – just three days after the first reported fatality.  Forty-four of those patients were dead by nightfall.

It took only a few weeks for cholera to reach every corner of the country.  It seeped into neighboring Dominican Republic almost as fast, and eventually sickened people in the US, Mexico, Venezuela, Cuba, and a long list of other countries across the Caribbean.  Haiti has become ground zero for the world’s deadliest cholera outbreak.

cholera - 3How did this happen?  Continue reading “Cholera in Haiti: UN Accountability Under The Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement”

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