On Sunday, March 23rd, community activists will gather at the Hawthorne Hotel in Salem to celebrate the 22nd annual Salem Award for Human Rights and Social Justice. The award will be presented to Mario Joseph and Brian Concannon, Jr. in recognition of their work to promote human rights in Haiti.
Joseph and Concannon have been working to strengthen the rule of law in Haiti for the past two decades. Their journey began at the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI), the oldest and largest public interest law firm in Haiti. Together, Joseph and Concannon developed a victim-centered approach that made legal services accessible to poor Haitians for the first time. In its early years, BAI prosecuted high-profile political assassination cases. As time went on, it expanded its practice to represent victims of a wide range of human rights violations. In 2000, Joseph and Concannon led the prosecution against those responsible for the Raboteau Massacre. Their victory marked a watershed moment in the development of the Haitian justice system.
Joseph and Concannon co-managed BAI until 2004, when the U.S.-led coup against Jean-Bertrand Aristide compelled Concannon to reconsider how he could promote human rights in Haiti most effectively. Concannon, who first traveled to Haiti as a UN volunteer, returned home to the United States in an effort to raise awareness of the need for improved U.S. policies toward Haiti and to build a network of grassroots organizations committed to advancing them. To that end, he founded the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti (IJDH). IJDH works in close collaboration with BAI, where Joseph is now Managing Attorney. Recognized by The New York Times as “Haiti’s most prominent human rights lawyer,” Joseph has represented dozens of jailed political prisoners before Haitian courts and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. He has also provided expert testimony to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and he served on the Haitian government’s Law Reform Commission. These days, Joseph leads a team of attorneys and attorneys-in-training all working to secure justice for victims of human rights abuses in Haiti. Meanwhile, Concannon provides support from his office in South Boston. Like Joseph, Concannon has represented Haitian political prisoners, including former Prime Minister Yvon Neptune, before Haitian and international courts. Much of his work is done outside the courtroom, though. Concannon has trained judges, asylum officers, and law students across the United States.
In the words of Dr. Paul Farmer, co-founder of Partners in Health/Zanmi Lasante, Joseph and Concannon are “richly deserving” of the Salem Award. Farmer wrote to the Salem Award Foundation to express his support of BAI and IJDH. Remarking on Joseph’s leadership at the BAI, Farmer wrote, “By his example, Mario is almost single-handedly creating a tradition of public interest lawyering in Haiti, the effects of which will be both long-term and far-reaching (and indeed have already proved transformative).”
Today, Joseph and Concannon are leading the movement for justice for victims of the cholera outbreak in Haiti. More than 8,500 people have died and 700,000 others have been infected since United Nations (UN) peacekeeping troops discharged raw sewage into a tributary of the Artibonite River in 2010. Last October, BAI and IJDH filed a lawsuit against the UN in response to its ongoing refusal to accept responsibility for the outbreak. The lawsuit seeks remedies in the form of: 1) clean water and sanitation infrastructure; 2) fair compensation for the victims; and 3) a public acknowledgement of the UN’s role in the outbreak. The case is now pending before a U.S. federal court in New York.
For Karen Ansara, the cholera case reflects the unwavering commitment to social justice that is at the core of everything Joseph and Concannon do. After the 2010 earthquake, Ansara co-founded the Haiti Fund at the Boston Foundation. She has been a strong supporter of Joseph and Concannon ever since. Eager to share her enthusiasm with the local community, Ansara nominated the pair for the Salem Award. In her letter to the selection committee, Ansara wrote, “Mario is, in my estimation, the Martin Luther King, Jr. of Haiti, defending the most vulnerable and rewriting a just future.” Of Concannon, she said, “Brian is one of my living heroes---laser-focused, unstoppable, strategic, pragmatic, exceedingly humble, and a magnet for global volunteers.”
Every year since 1992, the Salem Award Foundation has sought to preserve the lessons of the infamous Witch Trials by commending social justice activists. According to its website, the Foundation aims to “recognize, honor, and perpetuate the commitment to social justice and human rights of individuals and organizations whose work is proven to have alleviated discrimination or promoted tolerance.” Above all, the Foundation strives to increase public awareness of and end existing inequalities. The Foundation also partners with the City of Salem and the National Park Service to maintain the Salem Witch Trial Memorial. Located behind the Peabody Essex Museum in downtown Salem, the Memorial serves to honor those who were unjustly persecuted during the Witch Trials of 1692.
The 22nd annual presentation of the Salem Award will be made Sunday, March 23rd. A formal dinner will follow the ceremony, which is scheduled to begin at 4pm in the Hawthorne Hotel Ballroom at 18 Washington Square West in Salem. Tickets to the ceremony and dinner are available for $60. Guests who wish only to attend the ceremony may purchase tickets for $15.
To reserve tickets and learn more about the Salem Award Foundation, visit salemaward.org. For details on the 2014 award recipients and their efforts to advance human rights in Haiti, go to haitijustice.org.