UN Names William O'Neill as Independent Expert on Human Rights in Haiti

  • Posted on: 13 April 2023
  • By: Bryan Schaaf
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United Nations names independent expert on human rights for Haiti. He’s a familiar face
UPDATED APRIL 12, 2023 7:42 PM

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk on Wednesday designated William O’Neill as an expert on human rights in Haiti.  O’Neill is a U.S. citizen who previously headed the legal department of the United Nations/Organization of American States Mission in Haiti and helped establish the Haiti National Police in 1995. In his role, he advised on recruitment, testing and training the new police force, participated in creating the School for Judges, and worked closely with Haitian human rights organizations to help train their human rights monitors.  By profession, he is a lawyer specializing in humanitarian, human-rights and refugee law. He has a special focus on the establishment and maintenance of the rule of law in post-conflict situations.

The appointment of O’Neill came at the request of the U.N. Human Rights Council, which called for the appointment of an independent rights expert on Haiti given the escalating deadly gang violence that is engulfing the country, threatening livelihoods, and pushing half of Haiti’s estimated 12 million residents into hunger. The appointment is for a renewable period of one year. It has been six years since Haiti last had an independent U.N. human rights monitor. The last one was Gustavo Gallón, who ended his mandate in 2017 after the government of Jovenel Moïse opted not to renew monitoring. Prior to Gallón, the position was held by Michel Forst, who on his way out in 2013 issued an open letter criticizing the Haitian government for its continuing arbitrary and illegal arrests, threats to journalists and interference in the justice system.

An outspoken critic of human rights abuses in Haiti, O’Neill is familiar with the country and his resume extends to other regions with conflict. This includes serving as a senior adviser on human rights to the U.N. Mission in Kosovo and chief of the U.N. Human Rights Field Operation in Rwanda. He has also worked on judicial, police, and prison reform in Burundi, Liberia, Sierra Leone, South Sudan, East Timor, Nepal and Bosnia-Herzegovina.  In its latest human rights report, the U.S. State Department said that while gang violence continues in the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area, there are other “significant” human rights issues in Haiti. They include credible reports of unlawful or arbitrary killings; torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by government agents; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary and corruption, as well as serious abuses, including widespread civilian deaths or harm, enforced disappearances or abductions, torture, and physical abuse. The State Department also pointed out the inability of Haitians to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections; serious government corruption; a lack of investigation and accountability for gender-based violence; and substantial barriers to accessing sexual and reproductive health services, among other issues. “The government rarely took steps to identify, prosecute, and punish government and law enforcement officials who committed abuses or engaged in corruption, and civil society groups alleged widespread impunity regarding these acts,” the report said.

The report also notes several instances of police committing arbitrary and unlawful killings. The U.N. Integrated Office in Haiti reported that from June to September of 2022 51 persons were killed during police operations. The Inspector General of the Haiti National Police received 429 complaints from January to August of last year, including four cases of alleged summary executions. Follow-up for these cases included both administrative and judicial responses, including suspensions, weapon seizures and training. As part of his duties, O’Neill will be tasked with monitoring the human-rights situation in Haiti. He is being asked to pay special attention to the situation of children and of human trafficking, which are also highlighted in the State Department report. He will also provide advice and technical assistance to the Haitian government, national human rights institutions and civil society organizations, and assist in their efforts to ensure respect for human rights, the Council said.   The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has also been tasked with providing the Haitian government technical assistance and support for the promotion and protection of human rights, specifically for the Haitian judiciary, security forces and prison administration

Jacqueline Charles has reported on Haiti and the English-speaking Caribbean for the Miami Herald for over a decade. A Pulitzer Prize finalist for her coverage of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, she was awarded a 2018 Maria Moors Cabot Prize — the most prestigious award for coverage of the Americas.

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