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Transnational Legal Clinic in Haiti: Documenting Human Rights and Labor Rights for the United Nations

April 27, 2011

Practice Associate Professor Sarah Paoletti and students from the Transnational Legal Clinic interview community leaders in Haiti
Practice Associate Professor Sarah Paoletti and students from the Transnational Legal Clinic interview community leaders in Haiti

Civil society in Haiti is still struggling to reemerge from the destruction brought about by last year’s devastating earthquake, as well as the infrastructural and other challenges that existed long before in the country. Amid these stark challenges six students in Penn Law’s Transnational Legal Clinic (TLC), supervised by Practice Associate Professor Sarah Paoletti, travelled to Haiti during spring break this semester. 

Over the course of the week, Elizabeth Eisenberg L’11, Cora Ang GL’11, John Moore L’11, Rekha Nair L’12, Samantha Stephens L’11 and Erika Tang GL’11 worked alongside the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti and its sister organization Bureau des Avocats Internationaux to conduct on-the-ground research, interviews, and consultations in preparation for drafting a report on labor and human rights in Haiti to be submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Council as part of Haiti's upcoming Universal Periodic Review.

The Universal Periodic Review is a process established in 2006 by the United Nation's Human Rights Council with the purpose of evaluating each country's human rights record in light of the obligations established in the U.N. Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, other human rights instruments, and the country's own stated commitments.

While eager to participate and have their voices heard during this process, representatives of grassroots organizations and representatives from the most impacted communities do not have the resources to draft and submit the reports on their own. Therefore, students from the Transnational Legal Clinic took responsibility for drafting a report on labor rights.

“Since the earthquake the students had been eager to do something for Haiti, but I didn’t want to be just another foreign group on the ground,” said Professor Paoletti. “In this case there was a defined task, a demonstrated need, requests from grassroots organizations, and a set deadline, which contributed to making it a meaningful experience and an opportunity for real engagement with groups impacted by what we do.”

Throughout the week, the Transnational Legal Clinic team met with human rights lawyers, representatives from large international humanitarian nongovernment organizations, investigative journalists, the chief executive officer of Digicel (a cell phone carrier and the largest private employer in Haiti), staff from organizations working to combat abuses committed against Restavek children (children sent to live with other families who then find themselves in situations of domestic servitude and forced labor), representatives from an organization of women survivors of gender-based violence who assist other women and children victims of gender-based violence, tent camp residents, and a host of grassroots advocates. They visited two large camps – one an ad hoc settlement and the other a planned camp – to assess the economic opportunities available to the residents.

“This trip exposed students to how complex issues of human rights are, especially in a post-disaster setting and the importance of ensuring the people most directly affected by disaster and policy are a part of any discussions addressing human rights concerns and recommendations for moving forward,” said Paoletti.

“My work prior to this had been research only,” said Rekha Nair L’12. “In going to Haiti I got to see the problems and issues on the ground. The trip helped me to understand how to engage grassroots groups and local people on these issues. I also realized that while an outside organization from the United States or elsewhere can do meaningful work, lasting social change can only come from within, from a Haitian people and government empowered and committed to making a change together.”

Breakfasts and evenings were spent debriefing, conducting research, preparing for the next day's set of interviews, and drafting portions of the labor report, which TLC submitted to the United Nations on March 21st. The work of the clinic students constituted a valuable contribution to Haiti's Universal Period Review by raising critical questions and identifying key recommendations from across Haitian civil society for the advancement of human rights and labor rights in Haiti.

Cora Ang GL’11 described the scene in Port-Au-Prince as “truly traumatic” but explained that “there was a willingness of the people to have their voices heard.”  She said, “Whether we were navigating our way through the narrow paths of a tent camp or interviewing abused women, the narrative that echoed was the same: Access to education, access to job opportunities, adequate housing, access to clean water and healthcare. This is still what the population at large needs in order to survive each passing day and forge a future.”