Protecting Haiti's Orphans Depends on a Working Justice System

Amy E. Roth | International Justice Mission | Monday, February 8, 2010

Protecting Haiti's Orphans Depends on a Working Justice System

February 12, 2010

The earthquake in Haiti has revealed to the world what Haitians knew only too well:  extreme poverty amplifies suffering and loss and makes recovery many times harder and longer. 

Consider the following:  In 1989, San Francisco suffered an earthquake measuring 7.1 on the Richter scale.  Sixty-three people died. 

The Haitian earthquake on Jan. 12 also registered 7.1, but the death toll has passed 200,000 and continues to climb.  In fact, we may never know the number of lives lost. Haiti's desperate poverty, sub-standard housing, grossly inadequate health infrastructure and broken public justice system are part of the reason why the death toll has been so massive there, but was so minor in the U.S.  

Haiti's lack of infrastructure and effective government may have other victims, to tens of thousands of Haitian children and women who are vulnerable to human trafficking. As Christians, specifically commanded by God to "look after orphans and widows in their distress," (James 1:27), this must matter to us.

Though it may not be the first thing  we think of in an earthquake-ravaged nation, Haiti's lack of a functioning public justice system - effective police and working courts - presents as great a threat to its vulnerable children as does the urgent need for shelter and medical care. 

In 2008, Haiti was ranked 177 out of 180 on Transparency International's Corruptions Perceptions Index, a recognized standard for international corruption comparisons.  An expert on police reform recently told my colleagues that Haitian police could barely keep the peace in Port-au-Prince before the earthquake. Today hundreds of police, including commanders, have died.  The country's main prison lies in ruins and its more than 4,000 convicted prisoners, including gang leaders, are running free.  Courtrooms are gone. There is literally no place to prosecute or secure offenders. 

It may seem like a luxury to worry about proper policing in a country where one million children, men and women lack basic shelter.  However, it is anything but. As we address Haiti's urgent physical needs, we must not neglect the imperative to ensure that the Haitian people have what they most need to get back on their feet, protect their vulnerable children and women, and entice international investment: a functioning public justice system.

If the Haitian police are not reconstituted and supported quickly, Haiti is at grave risk of an acceleration of traffickers moving in to exploit the destruction and the vulnerability of orphaned children. 

Indeed, Haitian children were at risk of trafficking, slavery and abuse even before the earthquake.  The U.S. Department of State's Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report last year cited Haiti as a "source, transit, and destination country for men, women and children trafficked for the purposes of forced labor and sexual exploitation."  The Report notes that some 90,000 - 300,000 Haitian children are forced domestic workers known as restaveks.  

In our work in 12 developing countries overseas, International Justice Mission (IJM) has found that even countries with well-established police forces still ignore violent crimes suffered by the poorest of the poor.  But we've also found that working closely with local police and courts, providing training, mentoring, and advocacy for our clients can help make a dysfunctional justice system work. 

Take the case of Cambodia.  When IJM first set up an office there in 2003, local police tolerated - or were even complicit - in the sexual exploitation of very young children in Phnom Penh's notorious brothel district, Svay Pak.  But after six years of police training, relationship-building, and investigations of child trafficking, IJM and the Cambodian anti-trafficking police have secured the rescue of hundreds of children from prostitution and the conviction of over 85 pimps, traffickers, and brothel owners.  Cambodia still has a long way to go, but it improved dramatically in just a few years.

The Haitian police can make a similar turn-around with international help.  Encouragingly, the international press is reporting that the local police in Port au Prince are doing extraordinarily well, given the enormous losses they have suffered and the disastrous state of the Haitian capitol.  The Washington Post reported on Jan. 30 that the Haitian police are showing up for duty in spite of not having been paid. 

"In the old days, you ran away from the Haitian police, you didn't run toward them.  They were the bad guys," said Richard Warren, the U.N. deputy police commissioner in charge of assisting the Haitian National Police.  "That has changed, and you can see the change with your own eyes."  

That is an unexpected silver lining in Port-au-Prince, where hardly a building still stands and a family has not lost a relative.  The United States, the global community and the U.N. should invest quickly in this local force, starting with paychecks, training and shelter. Rebuilding the courts and prison should follow soon thereafter.

As we lift up the nation of Haiti in prayer, we should bring to God the needs of those on the frontlines tasked with rebuilding - or in many ways, building anew - a functioning public justice system.   Scripture is replete with commands to remember the most vulnerable - the children, the poor, the sick.  Let us now, together, answer this great call by insisting Haitians can depend on a public justice system that will protect generations from abuse.  

If you'd like to support earthquake relief efforts in Haiti, consider joining some of's partners in their work: Global Aid Network (GAiN) USA, Food for the Hungry, Samaritan's Purse, and World Vision

Amy E. Roth serves as Director of Media Relations for International Justice Mission, a Christian human rights organization whose lawyers, social workers and investigators partner with local justice systems around the world to bring rescue and restoration to victims of violent abuse. 

Join IJM in asking President Obama to prioritize protecting vulnerable children from human trafficking by signing this letter: