Haiti and the human right to housing

Nearly twenty years ago, I worked as a security guard in New York (don’t laugh!) I had no Taser, but was side-armed instead with a powerful torch and a walkie-talkie to call colleagues in case of emergency.

One of those colleagues was Vincent, a tall, thin Haitian who sometimes spoke to me despairingly of his homeland. His tales of shocking violence and devastating poverty have stayed with me and my ears always prick up and I recall Vincent’s stories when there’s news from that island state.

Inevitably it’s almost always bad news. None more so than this last week and the earthquake which has brought such death and destruction to the capital Port-au-Prince and its surroundings.

In the face of such large-scale devastation, what can one do? One approach is to send help from overseas, whether in terms of money, aid in kind or expertise. In Northern Ireland, there are all sorts of fundraising and other efforts already under way. Whether it is appeals by well-respected aid agencies like Concern Worldwide, street collecting by Belfast’s Dean Houston McKelvey of St Anne’s Cathedral or a multiplicity of local fundraising efforts such as this Thursday’s sponsored run by my two eldest sons and their primary school classmates in Co Down.

The aid itself is not getting through as effectively as it should, with the Haitian authorities reportedly overwhelmed by the disaster and the international community in dispute about how best to act.

Meanwhile, on the ground, there need to be effective measures by the Haitian security forces – assisted by the United Nations – to protect against human rights abuses of those already brought low by the earthquake, particularly women and children who have previously suffered so much. See more on this from Amnesty.

Longer-term, the rebuilding of Haiti's capital should ensure that the buildings are constructed to withstand earthquakes, as they currently are in fault-line hotspots like San Francisco or Tokyo. This was a point ably made by geologist Prof Iain Stewart on BBC Radio Ulster this morning. According to the US Geological Survey, the loss of life from earthquakes is typically 10 times higher in developing countries than the West and the damage can be up to 100 times worse. The effects of the quake could have been mitigated by better constructed buildings and Stewart thinks that international standards should be applied to the rebuild.

Couldn't this be construed as fundamental element of the internationally recognised human right to adeqaute housing under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights? Through this Covenant the international community has promised to help in the realisation of the right to housing in poorer countries:

"The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions. The States Parties will take appropriate steps to ensure the realization of this right, recognizing to this effect the essential importance of international co-operation based on free consent"; and in Article 2:

"Each State Party to the present Covenant undertakes to take steps, individually and through international assistance and co-operation, especially economic and technical".

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Want to help? The Disasters Emergency Committee is collecting funds on behalf of 13 UK charities. UK residents can give via its website Dec.org.uk, by texting GIVE to 70077 (network charges apply) or by phone on 0370 6060900.

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Update: I see there's a fundraising Belfast 4 Haiti gig happening at the Spring and Airbrake in Belfast on Sunday 31 January.

Here's an interesting way to double your donation to the DEC appeal via The Big Give initiative.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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