Lessons from Haiti
Santa Clara Law students travel to Haiti to tell a story of community and transitional justice.
BY DANIEL ZAZUETA ’10 and CAITLIN ROBINETT ’10
March 8th has become a monumental day for us. It was March 8, 2009, when Santa Clara Law presented Mario Joseph with the Katharine and George Alexander Law Prize in recognition of his work as a human rights lawyer and his relentless pursuit to improve the justice system in Haiti. Earlier that day, Professor Cynthia Mertens invited law students to meet with Mr. Joseph and Brian Concannon, an American lawyer who worked with Mr. Joseph to represent victims of human rights violations in Haiti.
Daniel Zazueta plays with one of the children at the orphanage for disabled children. Photo courtesy of Daniel Zazueta '10.
Mr. Joseph and Mr. Concannon recounted the history of the 1994 Raboteau Massacre, where approximately 40 people were murdered in a slum outside of Gonaives, Haiti. The paramilitary group FRAPH (Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti) sought to suppress any demonstrations calling for the return of Jean Bertrand Aristide, Haiti’s first democratically elected president. Aristide won a landslide victory in 1990, and within seven months a military coup removed him from power. The victims of the massacre, however, were mostly innocent men and women who were shot trying to escape into the sea, not anti-military activists.
Mr. Joseph told us the remarkable story of Marie Jeanne Jean—a woman whose husband was murdered during the Raboteau Massacre. After an internationally acclaimed trial in Haiti in 2000, where many of the military officers responsible for the massacre were tried and convicted, Marie Jeanne served as the lead plaintiff in a subsequent lawsuit filed in the United States against one of the officers, Col. Carl Dorelien.
“It is not impossible for the poorest to find justice as long as there are lawyers committed to work and fight for justice.”
—Mario Joseph, managing attorney of the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux in Port-au-Prince, Haiti
More children at the orphanage.
Dorelien fled to the United States in 1997 to escape prosecution and subsequently won $3 million in the Florida state lottery. The Center of Justice and Accountability, an international human rights organization, filed suit against Dorelien under the Alien Tort Claims Act. A Florida court ultimately awarded Marie Jeanne with $430,000. Instead of keeping the money for herself, Marie Jeanne spread the settlement award among the victims in her community. We went to Haiti to learn more about this moving story of community so we could share it with the wider world.
Professor Mertens helped us secure funding to travel to Haiti through a grant from the Bannan Institute at Santa Clara. We left Christmas night and spent two weeks in Haiti, conducting interviews with victims of the Raboteau Massacre and lawyers involved in the trials. The stories that unfolded in our interviews were heartbreaking, frustrating, and incredibly inspiring. It was the overall story of Haiti, however, that took over our quest to chronicle a true account of community, the rule of law, and transitional justice in Haiti.
Caitlin Robinett and Marie Jeanne Jean walking to the site of the Raboteau Massacre. Photo courtesy of Daniel Zazueta '10.
We found more than a story of community and justice. We were exposed to a country plagued with an unstable government, massive debt, rampant environmental degradation, an unsound infrastructure, and devastating natural disasters. What is the meaning of justice with a backdrop of chaos? We felt as if we were the ones being interviewed. We found ourselves examining what future roles we could take as lawyers in a place where ideas of retribution and fairness are seldom realized, especially when essential human needs are rarely met.
Haiti changed us. While we may have envisioned the role of a lawyer as one who gives a voice to the poorest, weakest, and most desperate among us, we may not have known quite how desperately that voice is needed. While we may have thought we understood the importance of social justice, we may not have known how complicated that concept can be. In Haiti, we saw a nation hanging by a thread. Four days after our return to the United States, we saw the thread break as the 7.0 magnitude earthquake caused more devastation than any of us could ever imagine.
After the earthquake, we never made a decision to go back to Haiti. We just knew that we would go back. We owe Haiti more than we can ever bring in used clothing and supplies, but we will carry as much as we can to give something back. It’s difficult for us to find perspective in our daily lives at Santa Clara while our new friends are trying to keep others alive. But for both of us, our experiences in Haiti affirm our commitment to service work and social justice.
There is just too much working against equality and fairness for us to dedicate our time working for anything else. There is nothing that could ever be as important as spending our lives improving the lives of others. Progression is not a natural phenomenon. The status quo must be questioned and solutions must be proposed. Justice is not simply realized, but fought for by people like Mario Joseph.
So we will go back to Haiti for our 2010 spring break, and return to California on March 8, 2010, one full year after Mario Joseph received the Alexander Law Prize. But our journey will not be complete. We will continue to invest time, money, and energy into helping Haiti help itself. Maintaining its tradition of advocacy for social justice, we hope the Santa Clara community will do the same.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
Register with the Lawyers Earthquake Response Network on the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) website: www.ijdh.org.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
IN MEMORIAM The earthquake in Haiti claimed the life of Santa Clara Law alumna Ericka Chambers Norman ’98, who was known at SCU for her commitment to social justice, her devotion to her Christian faith, and a relentlessly upbeat approach to life. Norman, 42, was living those values in Haiti, where she worked for the United Nations Stabilization Mission in the Board of Inquiry office. Click here for more about Ericka.