Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

When the Law is Not Enough: Cholera in Haiti and New Tools for Justice

By Abby Goldberg, Director of Projects for N-MAP
February 10, 2012

“It is as if the UN dropped a lit match on a dry field and when a fire began to rage, claimed they were not responsible for the fire.” – Brian Concannon, President, Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti (IJDH)

Law is one of the most powerful tools we have to advance human rights. But law alone is not enough to create real and lasting change. Lawyers and politicians often speak of the importance of global legal infrastructure, such as the International Criminal Court, but legal proceedings are often far removed from the realities of most of the world’s citizens. These international courts are frequented by elites and hear a very limited number of cases; it takes years to prosecute international cases, which are also very expensive. Moroever, states are reluctant to accept international jurisdiction and only hear cases of those most responsible for human rights atrocities leaving most people without a sense of justice. Even when positive human rights precedent exists there are insufficient resources to implement these standards on the ground. While the ideals are important and international law enforceability has grown drastically in recent years, it has a long road ahead.

The citizen and media-driven movements of this past year – from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street – demonstrate that average people have a role to play alongside lawyers in making human rights a reality and accelerating progress for social justice.  Whether in the streets or the courtroom, people demanding their rights are critical to enforceability. In fact, for international justice to become a reality for most people, civil society must take part as active global citizens. Without the involvement of citizens, international systems built to advance human rights will never create sustainable change for most of the world.


A joint legal and media campaign to remedy the outbreak of cholera in Haiti provides a compelling example of the potential power of this synergy.  After the 2010 earthquake, a contingent of UN peacekeepers arrived in Haiti carrying a virulent strain of cholera.  I just returned from Haiti where my organization, theNew Media Advocacy Project (N-Map), was producing a film as part of a broader campaign led by our clients, the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH)and the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) seeking justice and remedies from the UN for more than 5000 victims of cholera who are plaintiffs in the legal case, and formal acknowledgement of the UN’s responsibility for the epidemic in Haiti. If successful, this would be the first case in history to successfully challenge UN immunity and it has the potential both to provide justice for Haitian victims and create groundbreaking precedent that can protect people worldwide.

Artibonite River flows past the UN base near where cholera was first introduced.
Haitian women clean their clothing in the river near the UN base in Mirebalais.

Since October 2010, more than 500,000 people have been infected with cholera in Haiti; more than 7000 have died and still, 200 or more new cases are reported daily. The UN acknowledges that it introduced cholera into Haiti but claims it is not responsible for the epidemic because of Haiti’s weak infrastructure. As IJDH President, Brian Concannon explains, “It is as if the UN dropped a lit match on a dry field and when a fire began to rage, claimed it was not responsible for the fire.” It simply doesn’t make sense.

Makeshift Cholera Treatment Center in Hinche with no electricity. (Photograph courtesy of Doctor Phouc Ley, Partners in Health Nov. 2010)

The IJDH and BAI Petition has sparked internal debate at the UN and comes a time when people in communities where the UN is deployed have a greater voice in the forces affecting their lives. For the UN to operate successfully, its reputation among locals is paramount; at the same time, acknowledgement would mean the UN is accountable for its actions everywhere – a liability it is reluctant to accept.

The 37-page legal Petition is powerful and persuasive document, but it will never be read by the masses. Most people don’t even know that the UN is responsible for cholera’s introduction to Haiti at all. As long as that remains true, the UN is less inclined to remedy its devastating actions. People, however, hold the power to hold the UN accountable in the court of public opinion.

That is why N-Map and the legal petitioners have joined forces to create a set of short videos as a central part of the strategy to achieve accountability in this challenging case. N-Map is helping to push the case past a tipping point by engaging those whose stories can inspire action. Through interviews with victims, lawyers representing them, and doctors who treated and continue to treat the disease, the videos share critical perspective that can be hard to understand from afar. For example, it is easy for the UN or Americans to paint the Haitian plaintiffs as opportunistic, only pursuing the case for money. One story with a victim who sold all he and his family had to get to the hospital and save his life, however, says more than words possibly could for why individual damages are important. Visual storytelling has added new dimensions and possibilities to human rights enforcement.

Tida, a victim of cholera and community activist with her six children in rural Saut D’Eau.

The campaign extends beyond these videos. Using social media, listservs, and online advocacy platforms (one with more than 10 million members), the videos will link directly to a citizen petition that will be sent to the UN. The N-Map campaign thus leverages new advocacy platforms to offer an opportunity for millions to contribute to the legal effort for justice in Haiti by letting the UN know that the world is paying attention and cares.

From cholera in Haiti to impunity in Punjab, transitional justice and sexual violence in Latin America to mass destruction of property in Armenia, N-Map helps people secure their rights with an innovative take on human rights advocacy.  N-Map’s work builds on the increasing importance of communications technologies and their role in amplifying the voices of affected communities – those demanding their rights and justice – to strengthen the international justice system and make it work on behalf of those it was created to protect. Half public interest law/political strategy group and half media production house, N-Map works with clients to develop hard-hitting media for impact. It’s not making movies but winning cases that drives its work.

All people must take part in making human rights a reality on the ground and N-Map is pioneering new avenues to incorporate the voices of people in the promotion of their global human rights. The law is a tool not an answer. Media can help reach average citizens and engage them as agents of change. Only then will a system of international justice that serves all people, especially the most voiceless and marginalized, be possible.

For more about N-MAP and their other projects, please visit their blog and website by clicking here and here (respectively).

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