By Bill Bowring, Haldane Society of Socialist Laywers
Mario Joseph, of Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) is Haiti’s best-known human rights defender and is the lead advocate in the cholera case against the UN. He is longstanding friend of Haldane, through his work for many years on the Bureau of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers (IADL), of which Haldane is a founding member. He is supported by Brian Concannon of the US-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), which in November 2011 filed a Petition for Relief with the UN’s Claims Unit in Haiti on behalf of more than 5,000 victims.
This unprecedented petition against the UN has its roots in centuries of anti colonial struggle. Haiti has a proud history of revolution, and was the scene of the first decisive overthrow of slavery. C. L. R. James wrote of the ‘Black Jacobins’, part of the French revolutionary movement of the 1780s. The Haitian Revolution of 1791 to 1794, led by Toussaint Louverture, culminated in the Haitian Constitution of 1801, which proclaimed ‘There cannot exist slaves [in Saint-Domingue], servitude is therein forever abolished. All men are born, live and die free and French.’ The Haitian revolution was crushed by France within two years and Toussaint died in captivity. However, from 1804 until US occupation in the 20th century, Haiti was an independent black state, posing a very significant threat to all colonial and slave regimes. In 1817 Simón Bolívar received soldiers, weapons and financial assistance from black Haiti.
In 1904 the US imperialist President Theodore Roosevelt established the ‘Roosevelt corollary’ to the 1823 Monroe doctrine, itself a response to the successful liberation struggles against Spain and Portugal. This asserted the right of the United States to intervene in Latin America in cases of ‘flagrant and chronic wrongdoing by a Latin American Nation’. On this basis, Haiti was occupied by the USA from 1915 to 1934; the departing US forces established the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and laid the basis for the brutal hereditary dictatorship of the Duvaliers, ‘Papa Doc’ and ‘Bébé Doc’. Bébé fell from power in 1986.
The former priest and continuing threat to US hegemony, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was elected President in 1990, ousted in a coup in 1991, and returned to power in 1994. He left power according to the Constitution at the end of his term in 1996 and was re-elected with 92 per cent of the vote in 2000. In 2004, in what was termed a ‘new coup-d’etat or new kidnapping’, US forces removed Aristide from Haiti, and engineered a compliant vote in the UN Security Council.
The United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) has been there ever since. China Miéville (2008) has suggested that ‘… multilateral UN sanctioned imperialism is more of a threat to justice and emancipation than its unilateralist Rumsfeldian sibling’.
On 12th January 2010, Haiti was struck by a massive earthquake. The International Red Cross estimated that about three million people were affected. The Haitian Government reported that over 316,000 people had been identified as dead, an estimated 300,000 injured, and an estimated one million were made homeless. An outbreak of cholera began in October 2010. Five hundred and twenty five thousand Haitians contracted the disease and 7,025 have died since then.
MINUSTAH personnel deployed from Nepal brought the vibrio cholerae bacteria to Haiti, as has been established by numerous DNA tests and epidemiological studies, including those carried out by the UN itself. Although Nepal has endemic cholera, the UN did not test or treat the Nepalese peacekeepers for cholera prior to their deployment to Mirebalais. There they lived on a base with a ‘haphazard’ and ‘inadequate’ sewage system that dumped all waste into an unfenced pit. It was entirely foreseeable that human faeces containing cholera bacteria could contaminate a tributary that runs just metres from the base into the Artibonite River. Epidemiologists calculated from the record speed at which the outbreak had spread that a full cubic metre of cholera-ridden water was dumped into the Artibonite and moved downstream like a plume, infecting the Haitian families that drink, bathe, play and do
their laundry in the river.
In March 2011, Bill Clinton, by then UN Special Envoy to Haiti, acknowledged that MINUSTAH was the ‘proximate cause’ of the outbreak.
The Petition for Relief seeks:
a) the clean water and sanitation infrastructure necessary to control the epidemic;
b) compensation for victims who have lost family members or were ill from cholera; and
c) a public apology from the UN.
MINUSTAH’s operations in Haiti are governed by a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which gives the UN and MINUSTAH broad immunities from civil or criminal actions in the Haitian courts. To balance this immunity, the SOFA requires the establishment of an independent Standing Claims Commission to hear claims and compensate victims who have been injured in the course of the UN’s operations. Despite this requirement, no Commission has been established during the seven years MINUSTAH has operated in Haiti. In fact, no Standing Claims Commission has ever been established in over 60 years of UN peacekeeping, even though most SOFAs provide for such commissions.
The UN has confirmed receipt of the petition, and its official response is that it is ‘studying’ it. Liability has so far been denied, despite the overwhelming evidence. However in a Security Council meeting on 8th March 2012, France acknowledged the damage cholera had done to Haitians and to the reputation of the UN, declaring, ‘We can regret this, but we cannot ignore it.’ Pakistan called for a UN apology, adding that the UN must do ‘whatever is necessary to make this situation right.’
Unofficially, the UN responded to the petition several months after it was filed, by creating a ‘coalition force’ including the World Health Organization, Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO), UNICEF, and others. These organisations have announced a ‘One Team Against Cholera’ initiative to eradicate cholera through investments in comprehensive water and sanitation.
Haldane is part of the international campaign of solidarity, with the UK Haiti Support Group, to demand that the UN admits its liability to the cholera victims of Haiti, and provides effective and speedy relief as demanded by the petition. Bill Bowring is Haldane’s International Secretary