Tackle illiteracy to improve 'catastrophic' human rights in Haiti - U.N. expert

By Anastasia Moloney

BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Combating widespread illiteracy in Haiti must be a priority if progress is to be made on its dire human rights record and on lifting people out of poverty, a United Nations expert said.

Gustavo Gallon, a U.N. independent expert, who will present his latest report on the rights situation in Haiti to the Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Council next week, said because roughly half of Haiti's 10 million people are unable to read or write, many can't enjoy their basic rights.

"Haiti faces a very serious and catastrophic human rights situation that goes back many years," Gallon told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview.

"Knowing how to read and write is crucial to life with dignity and is the basis of knowing your rights and the possibility of claiming your rights. It's also the basis of getting an education, which in turn gives access to other rights such as a job, food, housing and health," he said.

Gallon urged the Haitian government and foreign aid donors to allocate more funding to improve literacy among children and adults and focus not only on Creole, Haiti's native tongue, but on French - the language used by the country's elite.

Only two percent of children complete high school in Haiti, and at the rate of current programmes underway to raise literacy rates, it would take 23 years to eradicate illiteracy in the Caribbean nation, U.N. figures show.

"Urgent action to address this problem should include a major boost in the human and financial resources ... to cut significantly the time needed to teach all Haitians how to read and write," Gallon's report to the U.N. said.

Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere where nearly 80 percent of people earn less than $2 a day, is still recovering from a massive earthquake five years ago that levelled much of the capital, Port-au-Prince.

In his report, Gallon also recommends emergency measures or 'shock treatments' to help Haiti address what he sees as the country's four other main human rights challenges.

These include providing homes to the 80,000 Haitians still living tent camps after the quake, addressing past abuses, such as those committed during the 30-year Duvalier dictatorships, tackling the problem of those held for years in pre-trial detention, and holding transparent elections.

Earlier this month, Haiti's electoral council announced the dates of the country's long overdue legislative and municipal elections, as well as a presidential vote late this year.

Haiti has been in the midst of a political crisis after the prime minister was forced to resign and parliament was dissolved on Jan. 15 over the failure to hold local elections, which have been delayed for more than three years.

"The right to vote has been flouted all too often in Haiti. At last, with this announcement Haitians will be able to exercise their right to vote," Gallon said.

"Being able to read and write is also the basis of exercising your political rights. It's easier to mislead and manipulate people if they are illiterate."

(Reporting By Anastasia Moloney; Editing by Ros Russell)