Legal Group Seeks U.N. Funding For Haiti Work

The International Development Law Organization is among the groups seeking funding at Wednesday's conference on Haiti. Karen Widess, a lawyer with the Rome-based IDLO, has come up with a proposal for legal reform in the country. She offers her insight.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

One of the groups seeking funding at the U.N. today is the International Development Law Organization. The group is based in Rome and it's been working to promote the rule of law in developing countries, countries like Indonesia, Afghanistan, Sudan and now, Haiti.

Karen Widess is a lawyer with the IDLO. She led a reconnaissance mission to Haiti last month and has come up with a proposal for legal reform there. Welcome to the program.

Ms. KAREN WIDESS (Lawyer, International Development Law Organization): Hi there.

SIEGEL: And, first, you worked on and off in Haiti for 30 years.

Ms. WIDESS: Yes.

SIEGEL: Could you describe what the legal system was like prior to the earthquake?

Ms. WIDESS: Well, the legal system prior to the earthquake is actually the same as post-earthquake. It is, I think at once, very complicated, formalistic, ornate and at the other side, very casual and customary because the formal sector is not very accessible to most people. It's based on 18th century French law and structure.

SIEGEL: And as best as you know it, I mean, if I were a Haitian farmer and I had a dispute with my neighbor about something, whether it was who's on whose land or who's done what to whom, do I typically go to a court and bring suit with a lawyer? Or is there some alternative dispute resolution system that we might seek out?

Ms. WIDESS: It kind of depends where you live. If you live in an area that is somewhat built up, you might have what's called a juge de paix.

SIEGEL: A justice of the peace.

Ms. WIDESS: Justice of the peace courthouse. And you may take your dispute there. Most people would not and they would probably take it to some kind of village elder. If they lived in an area where Voodoo traditions are very strong, they might take it to a Voodoo priest if that person was respected in the area.

It's a bit ad hoc depending where you live. And they're going to have increasing numbers of legal issues to look at as a massive reconstruction effort gets underway.

SIEGEL: I can imagine some relief organizations saying people are homeless, they've lost family members, there have been amputations. They've lost property and livestock. They need food, water, shelter, medicine. They don't need a lawyer right now. You're saying the need for looking at their legal situation is imminent.

Ms. WIDESS: It's immediate, yes. And not to deny that of course you need to save lives and of course you need to feed people and shelter people, but if you look at the situation currently, there's a terrible problem right now about re-housing people. We arrived on the 5th of February. So, it was evident already that there were going to be large issues about property rights when you have to re-house so many people, 'cause you're talking about over a million homeless.

You had children who were in people's care because people had good will. All those children may have land rights and family members that need to be found and there are questions of looking after the best interests of people who've been affected by the earthquake if they can't do it themselves. There's some very vulnerable people, people who are injured.

When you're talking about rule of law, it's also how people organize themselves and how do they solve their own disputes. That's something we learned in Indonesia that we're proposing for our program, our short-term program in Haiti, which is finding the leaders, the natural leaders in these refugee camps who we can give some training very sort of basic, hands-on, very practical, about how to solve all these little disputes that come up in these camps before they erupt into violence and become more serious.

SIEGEL: Long term, should there be a rewriting of Haitian law so that at least it's in Creole, say, and everyone can understand it?

Ms. WIDESS: Of course. Long-term law needs to be modernized. I mean, it really is too archaic. There have been attempts to do some modernization. I know they're working on a new criminal code and there's been talk about a new civil code. And of course, it all should be published in Creole as well as French because that is the language that 95 percent of the population, 92 percent use in their everyday lives.

SIEGEL: Karen Widess, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Ms. WIDESS: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: Karen Widess is head of program development and compliance with the International Development Law Organization. She spoke to us from New York, where she's attending the international donor conference for Haiti.

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