President Obama: Protect the Human Rights of Haitians

January 14, 2010

Haiti is devastated.

According to media reports, the earthquake has resulted in thousands of deaths, more injuries, and likely countless people missing and displaced. Amnesty International researchers are monitoring the situation. The US government quickly reacted on Wednesday by pledging humanitarian, technical and financial support to the people of Haiti, and this is to be welcomed. The Department of Homeland Security stated that it is temporarily halting all deportations to Haiti, which will provide some relief to the Haitians already here, and their family and friends in Haiti who will likely rely on them for financial support.

At the same time, however, there has been no move to provide protection or secure status to Haitians in the US, or suspend specific immigration policies that discriminate against Haitian nationals. Haitians fleeing persecution or other serious human rights violations have the right to seek protection in the US, but in flagrant violation of international law, the US government stops them on the high seas and returns them to Haiti (interdiction).

President Obama Should Extend Temporary Protected Status to All Haitians in the United States
Temporary protected status (TPS) is a form of protection provided to foreign nationals whose countries have experienced environmental disasters or armed conflicts posing a serious threat to the personal safety of foreign nationals if returned. By definition it is temporary in nature and provides protection and work authorization.

TPS also provides a critical lifeline to the family and friends of people remaining in the home country because TPS beneficiaries can work legally and provide financial support overseas. The US government has made very clear that Haiti is in critical need of financial support. Ensuring that Haitians in the US have the opportunity to work complies with US human rights obligations under international law and standards, and by enabling them to support their families in Haiti, helps indirectly to provide financial assistance to that country.

President Obama Should Suspend the Interdiction at Sea Policy
The principle of non-refoulement, which is a principle of customary international law applicable to all states irrespective of their specific treaty obligations, is of paramount importance in the context of maritime interception and search and rescue.

This obligation requires states, or their agents, not to forcibly return any individual in any manner whatsoever to a situation where he or she is at risk of serious human rights violations. This obligation is reflected in the 1951 Refugee Convention (article 33) the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (article 3) and, in regional human rights law including the American Convention on Human Rights (article 22(8)).

However, for three decades the United States has consistently violated this obligation through its policy of interdicting boats traveling from Haiti to its shores without conducting a proper examination of the entitlement of those on board to international protection.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights found in 1997 that the US practice of repatriating Haitian boat refugees violated Article 33(1) (Prohibition of expulsion or return (“refoulement”) of the Refugee Convention. Regardless, in 2002 President Bush signed an Executive Order providing the Attorney General with complete discretion to return individuals to Haiti without an obligation to screen for persecution or a fear of serious human rights violations (Executive Order 13276, November 25, 2002). This order remains in effect and is in direct violation of US obligations under international law. Amnesty International reminds the United States of its continuing obligation to fully respect the principle of non-refoulement.

Additionally, at the current time while Haitians experience horrors unimaginable, the Obama administration should immediately desist from interdicting and returning any individual to Haiti in view of the dire humanitarian situation resulting from the earthquake. Instead, the United States should focus its efforts on getting much needed humanitarian aid and relief to the Haitian people.

The US government has demonstrated a generous and prompt humanitarian response to this catastrophe, and that is welcomed. At the same time, Amnesty International calls on the US governmentto demonstrate its commitment to human rights by [taking steps to meet its obligations to respect, protect and fulfill the human rights of Haitians already in the US, as well as any other Haitians who in the aftermath of the earthquake, flee Haiti and seek refuge in the US.