Haiti on the Brink: Chaos, Cholera & Corruption
January 25, 2023
12:00 pm to 1:30 pm
John Hope Franklin Center, Ahmadieh Family Conference Hall, Room 240
Ambassador Pamela White will give a brief overview of Haitian modern history from 1986 and how Haiti came to face perhaps its most challenging crises today. She will also offer some possible solutions to those complex challenges which are humanitarian, security and political.
Co-sponsored by the Duke Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies and the Duke Human Rights Center.
Can you describe some of your most memorable work as the US Ambassador to Haiti from 2012-2015?
Some of my most memorable work in Haiti centered on working with a wide variety of Haitian and American NGOs to improve the quality of lives of millions of Haitians who were still suffering the impact of the 2010 earthquake that killed 220,000 Haitians. This included funding clinics and hospitals to provide basic health care – especially focusing on HIV/AIDs and maternal health care; providing additional classrooms across the country and supporting teacher training; building dams to provide access to water and helping to rebuild parliament both physically and intellectually. Certainly one of my proudest accomplishments was witnessing the dramatic decrease in people living in cramped tent cities across the capital city. When I arrived, there were over 250,000 people living in tents, when I l left less than 25,000.
How do Ambassadors advocate for human rights in the countries they work with? Feel free to share some examples from your experience with Haiti.
Ambassadors advocate for human rights in a number of ways, most notably using the voice of the United States Government to speak out for abuses of human rights and speak for programs that support human rights. Don’t forget that basic human rights start with access to four things: water, food, shelter and security. Forty percent then and now 60 percent of Haitians do not enjoy these basic human rights so I did every in my power to ensure these four items. This is the focus of all ambassadors serving in developing countries. In Haiti we also gave money for prison reform (not too successful), judiciary reform (another miss) and freedom of the press (more successful). Freedom of worship has not been a problem in Haiti for a long time. Once the Catholics realized they could develop a relationship with vodou priests, the real aggression stopped.
Ambassadors advocate for human rights in a number of ways, most notably using the voice of the United States Government to speak out for abuses of human rights and speak for programs that support human rights.
How do you protect human rights where there’s a lack of law and order?
You can protect some human rights even if there is no law or order by speaking out at every occasion and using the power of the United States government as your best “weapon.” I have done this in hundreds of speeches supporting free press, gay rights, right to a fair trial and freedom from oppression. But speeches only go so far. You have to have institutional change and this is very, very hard to achieve over decades – say nothing of shorter period of times in which success is often measured by the U.S. Congress, the U.S. press and the American people. We like to see measurable progress in a year or two. This is almost impossible on the human rights front, so often these efforts are unfunded and unappreciated. They are very hard to measure.
How do you incorporate human rights into your life today?
Today I spend a lot of my time advocating for the Haitian people by sitting on boards and giving interviews and many speeches, plus writing op/eds. I try to constantly keep the needs of the Haitian people my number one priority; for right now that is not the right to vote, but the right to food, shelter, water and security. Five million Haitians are near starvation levels, so something must be done. I am trying to use my voice and my connections but I am not seeing a lot of movement.
What recommendations do you have for undergraduate students looking to get more involved with human rights work in their career?
If you are interested in human rights, go for it. First define what you as an individual mean by human rights. I am mostly interested in survival human rights because I spent a career trying to make the world a better place for those living in conditions of poverty. I wasn’t so worried about freedom of the press as I was about feeding mothers, or allowing girls in school or proving access to clean water. If you define human rights as the right to worship, freedom of press, right to vote, etc. then there is plenty of work to be done in those areas as well – both at home and abroad. I would try to focus on either one area or one country first and see what should be done fundamentally to create change. I think we often go for the easy wins and don’t think deeply enough about the underlying causes that create injustices - across the board. Fighting for human rights is a fabulous, difficult, rewarding career choice. But it will not be easy.
Fighting for human rights is a fabulous, difficult, rewarding career choice. But it will not be easy.