THIS PEACEMAKER KNOWS THE INS AND OUTS OF POWER
(Sign on San Diego) - By Peter Rowe
Claudette Werleigh was Haiti's first female prime minister
Claudette Werleigh is only one of this year’s Women PeaceMakers at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice. The others:
Known for: Pro-democracy activist; founder of Kenya Debt Relief Network (1999); mediator of violent clashes between rival ethnic and religious factions; Nobel Peace Prize nominee (2005).
Quote: “Everyone wants revenge but no one thinks about how vengeance brings more vengeance. When we start talking, we realize we have more in common.”
Known for: Lawyer and executive director, Navsarjan Trust, a grass-roots group defending the rights of the Dalit, the Hindu caste system’s “untouchables”; executive committee member, International Dalit Solidarity Network.
Quote: “Until you have a conflict, you don’t work for peace.”
Dr. Rashad Zaydan
Known for: Pharmacist; founder and head of Knowledge for Iraqi Women Society, an organization that aids victims of war, especially Iraqi widows and children.
Quote: “We can’t change all bad things in the world, but still we can at least try to leave our repairing fingerprints here and there.”
They are black and white, Christian and Muslim, and come from every corner of the globe. But the four Women PeaceMakers now nearing the end of their stay at the University of San Diego are remarkably alike.
The common bonds are obvious. Dr. Rashad Zaydan feeds, houses and educates Iraq’s victims of war. Manjula Pradeep defends India’s “untouchables.” Wahu Kaara fights corruption in Kenya. Claudette Werleigh campaigns for democracy in Haiti.
There’s something unique, though, about that last woman. While all four PeaceMakers have fought The Power, only Werleigh has been The Power.
In November 1995, she became Haiti’s first female prime minister. Her tenure was just three months, sandwiched between a predecessor’s resignation and an election. But this experience, plus an earlier two-year stint as foreign minister, seasoned her idealism with a dash of realpolitik.
“This is one of the things I learned,” she said this week. “It’s only when the interests of one country coincide with the interests of another country that things work.”
For nine years, the university’s Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice annually has invited human rights champions from abroad to spend two months on campus, swapping notes and refreshing their strife-worn spirits. The PeaceMakers live in a Spanish-style residence at the institute and speak to schools and clubs across the county. They are also interviewed at length — like the PeaceMakers, their Peace Writers are selected afresh annually — so their story can be preserved for future generations.
That’s no easy task, especially if your 65-year-old subject is reluctant to revisit a girlhood under François “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s brutal regime.
“The greatest challenge is capturing the emotions,” said Bijoyeta “Joy” Das, the Indian journalist interviewing Werleigh. “I have to capture what she thought, what she felt when was 10.”
At one point, Das lost patience with her subject’s even-keeled approach. “You make dictatorships look nice!” Das fumed.
Werleigh was surprised, “Then,” she said, “I realized it is up to me to show the oppression, how you saw it in the way people walked, in the way people behaved.”
Born to wealthy parents, Werleigh was keenly aware of the poverty that afflicts many Haitians. After attending schools abroad, she returned to Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital, to study law and economics. Then she joined Caritas Internationalis, a Vatican-sponsored association of church-related relief and charity agencies operating in 200 countries. In 1984, Werleigh was elected secretary-general.
Her three years in that post earned her contacts around the world. Fluency in French, Spanish and English didn’t hurt, either.
She was also close to Aristide, a priest who in 1990 won Haiti’s first democratically-contested presidential election. But just seven months into his term, Aristide was ousted in a military coup.
Werleigh feared for her family’s safety: “There was shooting all the time. My husband feared that they could come for us at any time.”
The Werleighs sent one daughter to live with an aunt in New York; another was already studying in New Jersey. Then Werleigh moved to Washington as executive director of the Office on Haiti, an independent organization lobbying for democracy and human rights in the Caribbean nation.
When Aristide was restored to power in 1994, he asked Werleigh to become foreign minister. She was reluctant to leave Washington and her daughters, but a letter from home swayed her.
“You may not be helping two children,” a friend wrote, “but you will be helping many, many people in Haiti.”
There were limits, though, to her powers. Werleigh once tried to muster Washington’s support for the prosecution of Haitian military who had killed civilians during the coup. Members of Congress demurred, instead urging her to work on visa issues.
Werleigh was furious. Then.
“Now I understand,” she said. The visas were “something that could be won — you have to take little steps.”
She left political office for good in 1996, refocusing on nonprofit work. From 2007 through 2010, she was secretary-general of Pax Christi International, a Catholic nonprofit. There, she helped direct relief efforts after a January 2010 earthquake killed more than 300,000 Haitians.
Her dark hair flecked with gray, Werleigh wears her honors lightly. Becoming Haiti’s first female prime minister — isn’t that a source of pride?
“No, no, not really,” she insisted. “But other people now cannot say that a woman cannot do that job.”
They’re humble, these PeaceMakers.
“This is a unique experience for me,” Zaydan said at the university, “to see this movement that has these other women from around the world.”
Similar women, fighting similar battles — in power and out.