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Parliamentary delegation from Haiti highlights challenges to democracy

A delegation from Haiti undertook an inter-parliamentary visit to the UK Parliament from 18-20 November 2013. The delegation was led by the President of the National Assembly, Hon Senator Simon Dieuseul Desras, Vice-President of the Senate, Senator Riche Andris and Senator Steven Irvenson Benoit and was accompanied by Delegation Secretary Ms Jeune Pierre Jasmin Milineda.

The visit provided an important opportunity to better inform UK parliamentarians of the deep-seated governance, social and economic challenges facing Haiti and to explore areas the UK might assist the country in its efforts to consolidate its security, prosperity and democratic governance. The visit was arranged in partnership with the Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Haiti, Lord Griffiths, and other APPG members.

In their exchanges with UK parliamentarians, the delegation highlighted the risks Haiti faces in efforts to consolidate parliamentary democracy on the basis of an ongoing political impasse between the Executive and the Legislature over the Electoral Council. Disagreements have created long delays with key elections for the Senate and local government stalled since 2011. Against a worrying backdrop of violent protests in Haiti as the delegation visit was underway, President Martelly had recalled the National Assembly to seek a way forward, which required the delegation to depart before a planned visit to the Welsh Assembly.

The Haitian delegation were very aware of the UK Parliament’s contribution to establishing some of the foundations for parliamentary governance worldwide and they welcomed the opportunity to learn more about the UK’s parliamentary evolution by visiting the Palace of Westminster. UK counterparts referred to Haiti’s long struggle for democracy through periods of occupation and dictatorship, noting its early achievement of independence in 1803, just the second country in the Americas (after the US) to do so. All readily agreed that while countries need to find their own unique path to good governance, it remained invaluable to see how other legislatures worked to provide insights into their own parliamentary structures and systems. In this regard, the Haitian Senators were interested in the UK’s efforts to ensure the integrity and accountability of parliamentarians and they greatly appreciated their exchange with the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Ms Kathryn Hudson, on her work in addressing complaints and registering members’ interests.

In a range of meetings with UK counterparts, the delegation discussed the political impasse and ongoing security challenges in their country, electoral and constitutional reform issues, the political empowerment of women, development assistance matters (including ongoing efforts to recover in the wake of the devastating earthquake in 2010 which killed some 316,000 people) and provided perspectives on international efforts to assist Haiti, including concerns about the effectiveness of UN’s peacekeeping contribution to their country. Given the serious state of environmental degradation in Haiti, they were particularly interested in the work of GLOBE International in assisting parliaments to address climate change issues and they were keen to hear about the cross-cutting role of the UK’s Environmental Audit Committee through its Chair, Joan Walley MP.

A parliamentary roundtable meeting chaired by Lord Griffiths allowed UK Parliamentarians to explore the full range of these issues in detail with particular attention to understanding the key risks facing Haiti in terms of the delays to elections and the serious tensions existing between the legislature and the Executive. UK parliamentarians were concerned to hear that their Haitian counterparts feared a return to violence in the country and they urged President Martelly, Prime Minister Lamonthe, and all members of the National Assembly to work together to resolve their differences and find a path forward to allow elections to proceed as soon as possible in the months ahead. The delegation also raised its concerns about the recent decision by the Government of the Dominican Republic to strip Haitian’s living there of their rights to citizenship which was also a source of current unrest and protests in Haiti. Welcoming the opportunity to learn more about Haiti’s concerns, UK parliamentarians also said they would be keen to do what they could to help strengthen the institution of the National Assembly of Haiti and explore appropriate ways of supporting their Haitian counterparts.

The delegation also met with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and welcomed the re-opening of the UK Embassy in Port-au-Prince but urged the FCO to consider the appointment of a resident Ambassador. They also sought to convey the legislature’s perspectives on the political situation in Haiti and discussed concerns regarding the role of the UN peacekeeping force in the country, MINUSTAH, including raising the damaging impacts of this deployment such as the deaths of up to 10,000 from the outbreak of cholera and the sexual abuse of Haitian citizens, including children, by UN peacekeepers. They called on the UK, as permanent member of the UN Security Council, to look closely at the role MINUSTAH was playing and reconsider if it was the best mechanism to respond to the challenges facing their country.

BGIPU is grateful to all who contributed to the success of this visit, particularly the Chair of the APPG for Haiti, Lord Griffiths, and Ms Lizzette Robleto-Gonzalez, from Progressio who acts as the APPG Secretariat. We are also grateful to the BGIPU Chairman, Robert Walter MP, for hosting the welcoming event and the other UK members who hosted key events. We are grateful to parliamentary staff and our counterparts in the Welsh Assembly for their support of this visit (although we did not make it to Cardiff due to unforeseen developments). We also express our deep gratitude to the parliamentary authorities of the National Assembly of Haiti and Rick Shearn of the UK Embassy in Port-au-Prince for facilitating this visit and to the Charge d’affaires a.i., Mrs Valerie F. Pompee, and staff of the Haitian Embassy in London for their valuable assistance and contributions throughout the visit.