Mario Joseph, Haiti’s most prominent human rights lawyer and legal activist, made a hugely successful visit to London in August, where he gave the Sixth Haitian Revolution Memorial Lecture at London Metropolitan University, briefed black activists and trade unionists and sampled local Caribbean culture at the Notting Hill Carnival.
In telling the story of the Haitian Revolution with a plethora of new insights, Mario told his own story. He said it was a miracle he even received an education, let alone became a lawyer and indeed, given the cases he takes on, was alive today (his wife and daughters live in exile for their own safety). “People often ask me why I work with the poor, the disenfranchised, the least represented people.The answer is very simple: to give back just some of what I have had.”
Mario will be known to HSG Briefing readers for his courage in bringing to court a lawsuit against Wilson Jeudy, the mayor of Delmas, who authorised the illegal evictions of displaced people from public land in May (see HSG Briefing No 67). That case is just one of two sample cases he is pursuing as part of his efforts to prick the bubble of legal impunity in Haiti. “That is a blatantly illegal, violent eviction of displaced people by a public official from public land,” he says. “We are vigorously pursuing both that and another case in Carrefour, that is a private eviction from private land to send the same message to private landlords as elected officials.”
Mario Joseph came to prominence in 1996 with the foundation of the law office he still leads, the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) and as the lead lawyer for the victims of the Raboteau Massacre (the killing of at least 26 Aristide supporters killed by right-wing para-militaries). In what is still considered a watershed in Haitian judicial history, Mario and BAI secured the conviction of 53 defendants, who included not only the de facto leaders of the military/paramilitary dictatorship, but three members of the military high command who had been deported from the United States to face the charges. Today, Mario and BAI are at the forefront of efforts to bring Jean-Claude Duvalier to trial for human rights abuses, an equally seminal case.
But Mario Joseph and BAI are much more than Haiti’s leading radical lawyer and legal office. They are advocates in the broadest possible sense, running network groups in advocacy, teaching legal rights, and organising, advising and cajoling. The need for legal representation is so great in the face of the sheer scale of illegality and impunity in Haiti and the resources of BAI so relatively limited, that Mario has to be quite selective.
“I spend about 50% of my time training and advising. It’s a case of both organising plaintiffs before they go to court and training those and others to be activists and advocates in their own cases. It’s the model we developed with the Raboteau case and it’s served us and marginalised Haitians well. But of course there is always much more to do.”
It’s a model for which the term empowerment might have been coined. Empowerment on all fronts. Illegal evictions are the top priority, but gender-based violence and women’s rights, children’s rights and the general political impunity and lack of accountability that underpins them all are key concerns. “My office gets evidence of an average of three rapes a day in the camps, and at least 40% of school age children in Haiti are not in class,” says Mario.
Mario was open about the divisions amongst the network of civil society organisations in Haiti, which the Haiti Support Group is working to help overcome, in order to increase the chances for real change. “I think division is our number one problem and so much of it revolves around little, historic issues,” he admits. “I work with anyone, without fear or favor but try to never lose sight of our central purpose — to give the poorest, the most marginalised access to legal redress. However, I have to say that much of the division in Haiti is created by external forces, something reinforced by the power that goes with the disbursement of aid or funding.”
The saga of Mario’s own arrival in Britain might have been designed to test his legal skills and perseverence. Having been refused entry at Heathrow Airport in May 2010, he was finally informed he had got a visa in July this year after vigorous lobbying by activist allies in both Britain and the United States. However, his passport was not returned in time for him to leave Haiti as planned and so his arrival had to be postponed by nearly a week.
Having had similar experiences in December trying to get Eramithe Delva of the Haitian women’s group KOFAVIV into Britain, HSG would like to extend our deepest thanks to the consortium of groups whose persistence and determination finally got Mario Joseph’s voice heard in person in Britain. The trip was organised by Haiti First! Haiti Now! Reparations Campaign, the Global African Congress in the UK and the Pan-African Society Community Forum and funded by the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union, the RMT. Mesi anpil, tout moun.