Keeping Haiti Safe: Justice Reform


A dysfunctional justice system continues to pose significant obstacles to the democratic process in a post-earthquake Haiti where security and stability remain fragile.

Keeping Haiti Safe: Justice Reform, the latest briefing from the International Crisis Group, examines the need for a plan that is vital for any sustainable solution to political, economic and security problems. Despite five years of government promises, the majority of Haitians still have limited access to justice, and mistrust of the formal judicial system is widespread. The weeks-old government of new President Michel Martelly needs to build a system with effective investigation, prosecution and conviction capabilities, particularly with respect to serious crimes. Donors need to end a history of competing and poorly coordinated projects and direct support to a single, integrated reform effort.

“While some steps have begun with regard to the police, institutional reform in the justice sector has lagged, allowing further impunity and persistent criminal threats to citizen safety”, says Bernice Robertson, Crisis Group’s Senior Analyst for Haiti. “President Martelly and parliament must work in a non-partisan manner to produce reform at last, including by modernising the 176-year-old criminal code and procedures and setting standards for judges, giving the judiciary adequate resources and creating efficient mechanisms that guarantee proper access to justice”.

The impact of the 2010 earthquake on the infrastructure of an already decrepit system rendered a large number of courts inoperable. The remaining ones must cope with limited resources and personnel. The lack of proper legal services for the poor majority and inefficient case management fuelled by financial, material and human resource constraints produce far too many detentions without charge, delayed trials and overcrowded prisons. Executive and legislative interference, coupled with the sluggish pace of reform, has done little to convince the population that the political will exists for transformative change.

Haiti needs an integrated justice reform plan that takes into account pending key appointments to the Supreme Court, criminal law revisions and institution building to ensure fully operational courts. In order to set standards for and monitor operations of the courts, the Superior Judiciary Council must as a priority have its open seats filled and receive new staff and infrastructure. The integration of three key elements is vital to any justice reform: training for judicial actors across the board; civic education for the population; and coordination of continued, sustained international aid.

A more fearless justice system is required that gives special protection to those dealing with serious crimes, including prosecutors, judges and witnesses. Promotion of peaceful resolution of conflicts in rural communities can improve access to justice, currently a rare and precious commodity.

“Decades of failed, timid reform attempts have left impunity almost untouched”, says Mark L. Schneider, Crisis Group’s Senior Vice President. “The lack of a comprehensive, legally mandatory, justice reform plan is a major obstacle to justice and citizen security in Haiti”.

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