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States of Exception—Haiti’s IDP Camps

Valerie Kaussen (kaussenv [at] teaches Francophone Caribbean literature and culture at the University of Missouri-Columbia. She was in Haiti during the January 12, 2010, earthquake, researching the 2004 bicentennial and the so-called “chimé.” She is the author of Migrant Revolutions: Haitian Literature, Globalization, and US Imperialism.

According to the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, camps—for example, concentration camps, refugee camps, and internally displaced persons (IDP) camps—risk replacing nation-states as the most representative political spaces of our time. Agamben’s definition of “the camp” includes extra-judicial detention centers such as Guantánamo Bay; airport hotels that hold would-be immigrants awaiting deportation; the marginalized, segregated outskirts of Europe’s large cities; and even gated communities in the United States, with their private security firms and individualized “laws” that govern entry and exit. What all these spaces share is the suspension of national, territorial law and its replacement by police power.1 Those who reside in these legal dead zones are no longer “citizens”; they live in a state of exception to the law of the land—“exceptions” that are becoming more and more the rule.

Haiti’s IDP camps are indeed “states of exception” that risk becoming permanent fixtures in the post-earthquake urban landscape in and around Port-au-Prince. While Haitian law applies as a matter of course to IDP residents who remain Haitian citizens, in practice, the “rights” of these individuals do not have the full backing of the law but depend on the goodwill of the organization or person in charge—often with the support of the Haitian National Police, privately hired gunmen, and the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH).

As Haiti attempts to resolve the controversy surrounding the corrupt and disputed presidential elections of November 28, 2010, the governance of the country—including the over 1,300 camps containing 1.5 million Haitians—remains a thorny and confused issue. The Haitian government voted in mid-April 2010 to give all of its decision-making power over to the Interim Reconstruction Committee (co-directed by Bill Clinton and Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive). In the camps and neighborhoods and areas hard-hit by the earthquake, large NGOs are responsible for basic services, including schools, security, and health care, normally provided by the state. Indeed, the system for delivering aid to IDP camps, coordinated by the UN-affiliated Camp Coordination and Camp Management (CCCM), is disturbingly termed “camp management.”

The CCCM, organized around a “cluster” system (there are “clusters” on education, shelter, security, etc.), disseminates information and coordinates NGO aid delivery. But the system is entirely voluntary—NGOs are not required to participate, nor are they required to follow standards, practices, or rules established by the various clusters. In short, the CCCM coordinates but does not oversee, evaluate, or seek to guarantee aid delivery. As anthropologist Mark Schuller discovered in a recent report on IDP camps, the result of this neoliberal, privatized approach to aid is that only 35 percent of camps in fact have “managers,” while the rest receive occasional aid or none at all (thus, 40 percent of the tent camps, reports Schuller, do not regularly receive water). Schuller also found that NGOs tend to concentrate on the camps that are easily accessed and that are not located in areas with high crime rates.2 (The camps found in beleaguered neighborhoods such as Cité Soleil are thus woefully neglected.)

But who guarantees the basic rights—to security, education, shelter, not to mention fair labor practices—of Haitian citizens living in IDP camps? Currently, the NGOs are the responsible parties, and they act with virtually no oversight by local or international governing bodies. Indeed, in the NGO community, there is much talk about “human rights,” but these are not legally guaranteed by any document or governing body. At the same time, Haitian constitutional rights, which are legally binding, are rarely if ever cited in the effort to improve IDP living conditions. For example, Article 22 of the 1987 Haitian Constitution guarantees adequate housing to all Haitian citizens. When I asked a senior shelter cluster employee if she was aware of Article 22, she responded with incredulity: “Are you sure about that?” She then suggested that such laws were irrelevant if the population was not educated enough to know that they exist.

If the camps were truly “temporary,” the situation would not be so dire, but by many accounts, IDP camps will be a feature of daily life in Port-au-Prince for many years to come. The language of human rights without recourse to constitutional rights unfortunately reinforces a decentralized, neoliberal system in which basic rights become a privilege granted to a few lucky “beneficiaries” of this privatized largesse and other forms of humanitarian aid. In the long term, this approach will ensure that Haitian camp residents remain passive victims, rather than participants in the reconstruction of their country.

The case of the camp at Corail-Cesselesse is the starkest example of how humanitarian aid and neoliberal development projects together shape a reconstruction based on exceptional states. On September 20, 2010, U.S. and Haitian officials signed an agreement with the South Korean clothing manufacturer Sae-A Trading (which sells to companies such as Wal-Mart, Target, and Gap) to open garment factories at Corail-Cesselesse, site of a sprawling tent camp that lies on a barren stretch of desert, ten miles north of the capital. In April, the Associated Press reported that the decision to relocate camp residents to Corail-Cesselesse was simultaneous with the decision to create a “business park” in the area.

The camp, built by the U.S. Army, is home to displaced people relocated mostly from the Pétionville golf course, which borders the U.S. embassy grounds. It was supposed to be a “model camp,” a site to house earthquake survivors while they rebuilt their lives. In fact, the services are few, the promised timber-framed temporary housing has failed to materialize, and the mostly jobless residents are a day’s wage and several hours away from their communities. There are no schools in Corail-Cesselesse, and no trees. Several tents were destroyed in torrential rains in July, and most people, even UN personnel, agree that Corail is a spectacular failure. Despite the increasingly poor condition of the camp, there are no plans to relocate these people—yet again. On the contrary, Corail-Cesselesse will do what it was always intended to do: provide one permanent source of cheap labor for a revitalized garment factory sector.

With a heavy MINUSTAH presence, security does not appear to be a problem at Corail. But the lack of security in many other camps illustrates clearly the problems inherent in the haphazard system of camp “management,” and the need to strengthen public institutions that guarantee basic rights. In too many cases, camp residents are treated as security risks, and the camps in which they live are cordoned-off spaces, states of exception, where police dare not tread.

For example, Eramithe Delva and Malya Villard, directors of the rape victims’ support group KOFAVIV, became keenly aware that, as Champ-de-Mars camp residents, they had no right to basic police security. When a man tried to rape Delva’s daughter, first ripping through their tent, the women fled to an adjacent police station, where, Delva reports, they were told that this was “President Préval’s problem.” The policeman was referring to Préval’s announced personal mission to find a solution to the plight of the fifty thousand residents of the Champ-de-Mars camp, living in the shadow of his crumbled National Palace.

What Préval’s “adoption” of the Champ-de-Mars camp means in practice is not clear to anyone. Eventually, residents themselves forced the would-be rapist out of the camp. But a few weeks later, police officers, who had refused to enter the camp’s grounds to address a citizen’s complaint, fired shots and tear gas into the camp as they chased down demonstrators at a nearby student protest. Delva stated dryly, “I had heard that the police were supposed to ‘protect and serve.’”

Following a report on gender-based violence in the camps published by the international women’s human rights organization MADRE, and an appearance by Villard before the UN Human Rights Council in June, the United Nations and its sub-cluster on Gender-based Violence have begun to address the problem of rape by launching a public information campaign and giving special training to UN peacekeepers. It remains to be seen whether or not these measures will improve security in the camps.

Forced expulsions, sometimes backed by the Haitian National Police and MINUSTAH, represent yet another example of how tent camps operate as exceptional states whose residents cannot claim their basic citizen rights. Although Haitian law requires a lengthy judicial process for eviction that can last up to two years, local, state, and international authorities have done little to protect earthquake survivors living in camps, often located on private property. A report by the human rights watch group International Action Ties describes the plight of residents of Camp Immaculée in Cité Soleil who were regularly threatened and intimidated by hired gunmen trying to force them off land identified by an entrepreneur as an ideal concert space. During these attacks, repeated phone calls to both the Haitian National Police and MINUSTAH went ignored. As had the Haitian National Police at the Champs-de-Mars, MINUSTAH patrolled the area but refused to enter the camp. Even after International Action Ties representatives set up meetings between camp representatives, NGOs, the Haitian National Police, and MINUSTAH, the latter failed to increase patrols, and in the face of continued threats, Immaculée residents finally moved, only to face further harassment at their new site.3

The Immaculée camp was located on public land, but when camps are built on private property, landowners—their titles often disputed—have the power to decide everything from whether NGOs are allowed to deliver water or build latrines to whether residents can exit the properties after nightfall. In one camp in the Pétionville neighborhood of Boben, landowners would not allow the construction of “infrastructure”—in this case, a well and latrines adequate for the nearly three thousand inhabitants. In September, residents had no access to potable water and were still using six “pit latrines”—holes dug in the ground—that were not being regularly cleaned. (Fortunately, the Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene Cluster—the only cluster in the “camp management” system that includes as one of its members a Haitian state organization—later made the Boben camp one of its top priorities, and conditions have considerably improved.)

Last February, in addition to locking vehicle entrance gates, the director of St. Louis de Gonzague, an elite Catholic school in the Delmas suburb, site of a camp of more than twelve thousand displaced earthquake survivors, halted distribution of food, tents, and other aid in an effort to force the camp residents to relocate—although no adequate relocation site was provided. When these efforts failed to clear the area, the school director, backed by the Delmas Police Commissioner Carl Henry and Mayor Wilson Jeudy, threatened to call in both the Haitian National Police and MINUSTAH to throw displaced people off the land physically. Forced eviction is, of course, a blatant abuse of the UN Guiding Principles on Internally Displaced People. But eviction is also a violation of Haitian law and of the requirement of due process.

The CCCM and Security Cluster have shown some willingness to address the problem of forced evictions, but they tread lightly when it comes to contractual issues such as property rights in Haiti. Yet it seems obvious that NGOs and cluster personnel can do little when they assume as “natural,” along with the landowners and Haitian and U.S. politicians, the primacy of private property rights over citizens’ constitutional rights—even following one of the worst natural disasters in recorded history. At the same time, the Haitian government has just officially announced that it will appropriate a large swath of privately owned land in downtown Port-au-Prince for the purpose of building government offices, citing laws permitting the expropriation of private lands for public purposes. They are much more circumspect, however, when it comes to expropriating land for public housing.

Increasingly, though, Haitians and Haitian activists are refusing to abide by the emerging structure of governance based on exceptions to rather than the rule of law. They are demanding, instead, that the Haitian government make good on the constitutional rights guaranteed to Haitian citizens, especially the right to adequate housing for all. The movement to insist on this most basic of human rights began in earnest on August 12, the seven-month anniversary of the earthquake.

A coalition of groups, including Force for Reflection and Action on Housing (FRAKKA), Bri Kouri,4 Bureau d’avocats internationaux, Batay Ouvriye, and the organizing committees of several tent camps from in and around Port-au-Prince, organized a sit-in in front of the National Palace to denounce forced evictions. They also demanded that the Haitian government respect citizens’ rights to adequate housing by appropriating private lands that remain empty, verifying ownership titles, and creating public housing. At one of the press conferences that took place in late July to launch the series of actions, organizer Sanon Reynold stated that “the problem of housing has always existed for the poor of Haiti. But since January 12, the housing problem has become [their] main issue…all groups, all institutions that work with the popular sector should make the housing cause their fundamental priority.”

Sit-ins, protests, and “bat tanbour” (in which camp residents who cannot attend a protest beat pots and pans at a designated time) have continued regularly since then. On September 13, at least two hundred people turned out in front of the National Palace to declare their right to education for their children and adequate housing. At a sit-in on October 12 in front of the office of Prime Minister Bellerive, organizers stated in a press release, “We swear we will not participate in elections from under tents….Everyone living in the camps, let us stand up to force the state to respect our rights.”

On November 12 and January 1, Haitian Independence Day, this coalition of groups again took to the streets to protest the continuing presence of MINUSTAH, in all likelihood, the source of the recent cholera outbreak. At this writing, Haitians are approaching the one-year anniversary of the January 12 disaster with no solution in sight for the one million citizens still living under tents. In response, the above groups, more organized than ever, are planning a series of conferences, documentary film screenings, and victim testimonies on housing rights and forced evictions to take place in tent camps and on the streets of Port-au-Prince over the course of several days preceding the anniversary of the devastating quake.

In demanding their right to shelter, this growing popular movement is also resisting a system of governance that uses a state of emergency to give a range of private interests de facto decision-making power over security and safety, sanitation and health, and displacement and relocation. Haitians are refusing to permit these exceptional zones of the post-earthquake moment to become the permanent state of Haiti’s future.


  1. See Giorgio Agamben, Means without End: Notes on Politics trans. Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino.(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000).
  2. Mark Schuller, “Unstable Foundations: Impact of NGOs on Human Rights for Port-au-Prince’s Internally Displaced People,” October 4, 2010,
  3. International Action Ties, “We Became Garbage to Them: Inaction and Complicity in IDP Expulsions,” August 14, 2010,
  4. See
2011, Volume 62, Issue 09 (February)
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