A U.N. human rights expert says Haiti is suffering a “modern form of slavery” in the widespread use of children as house laborers.
The Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, its causes and consequences, Gulnara Shahinian, expressed deep concern yesterday over the highly exploitative nature of the ‘restavek’ system in Haiti, which she considers to be a modern form of slavery.
At the end of her visit to Haiti, Ms. Shahinian emphasized her deep concern at the restavek system, which deprives children of their family environment and violates their most basic rights such as the rights to education, health, and food as well as subjecting them to multiple forms of abuse including economic exploitation, sexual violence and corporal punishment, violating their fundamental right to protection from all forms of violence. Many have been reported as trafficked within the country and outside the country.
(Read the column in the National Post here which describes the restavek system.)
Throughout her visit, which also brought her to Ouanaminthe and Les Cayes, witnesses gave various accounts of this practice and its forms. Ms Shahinian discussed efforts to address this phenomenon and its root causes with different stakeholders. The Special Rapporteur expressed her deep concern at the situation, calling on all actors to make the eradication of this practice a top priority – “this practice is a severe violation of the most fundamental rights of the child – the foundation of society – and reinforces a vicious cycle of violence – it should be stopped immediately.”
While noting that the political instability of the last decades combined with continuous natural disasters have impeded the economic and social development of Haiti and further deepened poverty and enhanced human insecurity, the Special Rapporteur commends the Haitian government for its efforts to address the issue through legislative, policy and programmatic steps to protect the rights of restavek children. She particularly welcomes the creation of the Brigade de Protection des Mineurs and the efforts of Institut du Bien-Etre Sociale et de la Recherche, despite insufficient human and financial resources. However, she also agrees with the conclusion reached by many government officials during their meetings with the Special Rapporteur – Many challenges remain before the complete eradication of the restavek system in Haiti.
Two new tendencies have been observed in recent years: the direct placement of children from family to family has been supplemented by the existence of recruiters, who for financial gain recruit children from rural areas to work in urban families as child slaves in domestic work and outside the home in markets. In addition, the majority of the demand has shifted from wealthy families to those belonging to the poor. Therefore, the situation of hundreds of thousands of children remains alarming; it requires urgent attention and a comprehensive, systematic response by the Government. “The issue should be put urgently on the highest priority agenda of the Government and the international community”, adds the Special Rapporteur.
The following issues should be addressed as a matter of priority and are of strong concern to the Special Rapporteur:
1. The limited application in national law and practice of the international human rights obligation of Haiti, irrespective of the fact that Haiti has ratified many international human rights instruments on the elimination of slavery and the protection of the rights of the child, in particular the UN Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave trade and Practices similar to Slavery, ILO Convention No. 29 on Forced or Compulsory Labour, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and ILO Convention No. 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labour, UN Convention on Transnational organized Crime and Protocols
2. The fragmented nature and limited institutional and financial capacities of state agencies dealing with vulnerable children
3. The limited number of programs addressing the issue of child labour
4. The limited number and inaccessibility to free schooling for children from poor rural communities as well as the absence of a comprehensive health care and social protection system
5. The absence of comprehensive legislation protecting the rights of the child, in particular vulnerable groups of children, including restavek
6. The weakness of the judicial system in ensuring prosecution, fair trail and adequate punishment of perpetrators, thus preventing access to justice and the right to an effective remedy
7. Insufficient attention to the issue, limited cooperation and fragmented programmes at the level of international agencies
8. Sporadic and insufficient efforts by the Government to cooperate with and support civil society
The Special Rapporteur makes the following preliminary recommendations to the Government of Haiti:
· The human security of each individual child is of utmost importance to the sustainable, human rights based development of society and a precondition to sustainable peace. The Government in cooperation with the international community should attribute the highest priority to policies and programmes centered around the protection of human rights, in particular the rights of children.
In addition the Government should:
· Establish a National Commission on children with special attention to vulnerable children to monitor and ensure protection of the rights of children
· Conduct an extensive institutional assessment of the agencies dealing with children, especially vulnerable children, to determine gaps, needs and financial requirements to ensure effective functioning
· Promote disarmament to reduce societal violence and restore human security and social cohesion.
In the area of prevention, the Government should develop proactive complex prevention programs to eliminate the practice of “restavek” by:
· Launching a sensitization campaign on the dangers and impact of the practice of restavek on children and child labour in general, throughout the country, including border and rural areas
· Facilitating access and monitor registration of children, particularly at birth, throughout the country
· Providing alternative income generating programs for poor families in rural communities to develop agriculture and market their goods (provision of small start up grants, establishment of revolving funds, training programs, especially with female-headed households
· Ensuring compulsory and free primary education for children, and increase access to educational facilities in rural areas, as well as free health care
· Providing training of government officials dealing with vulnerable children: Government ministries, including local Government agencies, the Brigade de Protection des Mineurs, labour inspectors, teachers, doctors and all other relevant professional groups and stakeholders
· Developing special national referral systems and coordinated protection mechanisms for vulnerable children and ensure their effective functioning
Important legislative changes are necessary:
· The Government of Haiti should take urgent measures to bring local legislation in conformity with international legal instruments ratified by Haiti, it should also:
· Ratify the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural rights, the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families,
· Develop and implement comprehensive national legislation addressing in a complex way all issues related to specific groups of vulnerable children and mechanisms of implementation
· Adopt a Law on the fight against trafficking in humans and develop strong mechanisms on child adoption
· Adopt immediate and long term measures to address shortcomings in the administration of justice in the country
To ensure safe return and effective reintegration of children in their families and communities, the Government should :
· Develop strong cooperation between state entities- juvenile police brigades , departments on children , social workers and NGOs’ to effectively address these challenges and protect the rights of the child
· Establish special hot lines and services, such as temporary safe place for restavek children
· Provide safe return and monitor reintegration and reinsertion to family, schools and community and provide necessary assistance packages ensuring sustainable protection
· Encourage access to justice and develop special protection legal mechanisms (in conformity with international human rights standards) of participation of children in judicial proceedings
· Develop special training and sensitization for the judiciary in the rights of the child.
Recommendations to International Organizations:
· Prioritize protection of vulnerable children and their families in rural and urban areas in their programs and assist the Government and NGOs in the implementation of their programs
· Mainstream protection of vulnerable children and their families in all development and human security programs
· In cooperation with Government and NGOs, conduct a study on the nature and incidence of child labour, and, based on its findings develop programs to address the issue
· Establish special task forces to develop and monitor the effectiveness of special programs to address the issue
Taking into consideration all the difficulties faced by the Government of Haiti, the Special Rapporteur congratulates the Government on all its achievements and commitment to address human rights challenges, in particular those related to children, as they constitute almost half of the population. The security and protection of rights of each individual in the state enhances the security within entire nation, making it stronger and equal.
The Special Rapporteur visited Haiti, from 2 to 10 June 2009 and met with Government officials, the United Nations and other international organizations, and representatives of the civil society to discuss slavery-like practices in the country.
In May 2008, the Human Rights Council appointed Ms. Gulnara Shahinian as the first Special Rapporteur on Contemporary forms of slavery, its causes and consequences. Ms. Shahinian is a lawyer and has extensive experience working as an expert consultant for various UN, EU, Council of Europe, OSCE and government bodies on children’s rights, gender, migration and trafficking. She is also a former trustee of the UN Voluntary Trust Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery.
For further information on the mandate of the Special Rapporteur, please visit the website of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.