By Neil H. Dempsey
---- — SALEM — Two lawyers who have spent the past two decades pursuing human rights causes in Haiti will receive this year’s Salem Award.
Brian Concannon is the founder of the Boston-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, while Mario Joseph serves as managing attorney at the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, its sister organization based out of Port-au-Prince.
The two have worked on an array of issues, from prisoners’ rights to housing advocacy to the prosecution of former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier for financial and political crimes.
“Collectively, what we try to do is make the justice system work for everybody, especially the poorest,” Concannon said in an interview this week. “We work very closely together in all our cases.”
One thing the two are currently working on is the Rape Accountability Prevention Project, which aims to keep pressure on Haiti’s police and court systems to follow through on rape cases.
Concannon said that while rape was hardly ever prosecuted effectively before the 2010 earthquake, things only got worse afterward. A woman who tried to report a rape, he said, had the odds stacked against her from the very first step — approaching a police officer, he said.
“The officer would say, ‘I don’t have a pen, I don’t have a form, I don’t know how to use the form,’” Concannon said. “They are apathetic because — with good reason — they think nothing’s going to happen.”
In order to get officers to take a rape report seriously, it was sometimes necessary to send a lawyer to the station with the victim to explain that police were obligated to act, Concannon said. That lawyer might have even provided the officer a pen or explained how to fill out the form.
Pressure had to be kept on the system all the way up to the prosecutor, who would likely need to be “pushed to do a good job,” Concannon said.
He added that the situation has improved somewhat, but work remains.
Another significant issue facing Haiti is the ongoing cholera epidemic that began after the 2010 earthquake. The epidemic has officially killed 8,500 and sickened 700,000, though Concannon said the real numbers are higher.
Concannon said he and Joseph worked together to sue the United Nations on behalf of the Haitian people because peacekeepers were responsible for bringing cholera to the country in the first place — and then the organization didn’t do enough to abate it. They say the cholera originated with a group of U.N. peacekeepers from Nepal.
“The U.N. so far refuses to either accept responsibility or put in the water and sanitation you need to stop a cholera epidemic,” he said. “This is such a compelling case, and we really think this can make a difference.”
Previous efforts to sue the United Nations have failed, largely because the organization is protected by different forms of immunity, but Concannon said he was confident that his case could succeed, in part because “the law is evolving in our direction.”
“At some point, this case is going to be seen as a no-brainer,” he said.
Although Concannon said his job didn’t pose a risk to his personal safety — “My personal risk is mostly paper cuts” — his colleague, Joseph, has faced a variety of unpleasant experiences, including death threats, having bullets mailed to him and in 2003, having somebody fire a bullet into his office. The next year, he moved his wife and daughter out of the country out of fear for their safety.
“He does go up against some fairly serious risks of security,” Concannon said.
The Salem News was unable to reach Joseph for comment.
Concannon said he is especially excited about receiving the Salem Award because the story of the Salem Witch Trials — the award’s impetus — made a deep impression on him as a child.
“I can actually still recall my outrage about it. It’s probably the earliest book that I can remember reading,” he said. “That, to a large extent, has motivated everything I do.”
It wasn’t just the story of the wrongly accused that got to him, Concannon said, but how a justice system that was meant to protect people could itself be used as an “instrument of abusive authority” — a lesson with special relevance to Haiti.
“Haiti is, unfortunately, a place where the justice system is ... still systemically used for oppression,” he said.
The Salem Award includes a monetary prize, but board member Lynn Murray said she didn’t know much it would be this year, as it’s dependent upon fundraising efforts.
“We hope for the best,” she said.
The award ceremony will take place at Hawthorne Hotel on Sunday, March 23, at 4 p.m. Tickets are $15, though admission is free for Salem residents and Salem State University students. Tickets for the award presentation, plus a dinner afterward, cost $60.
Both Concannon and Joseph are expected to deliver remarks during the ceremony, as are Mayor Kim Driscoll and Salem State University President Patricia Meservey, both honorary co-chairs of the award board.
Neil H. Dempsey can be reached at email@example.com.