By Alok Pokharel, Republica
January 6, 2013
Whenever most of us think of United Nations (UN), it brings to mind noble principles such as human rights, rule of law, and accountability. The UN’s Charter espouses the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the organization’s immense efforts toward the realization of these principles have undoubtedly established it as a paragon. Yet, when it comes to the rule of law and accountability within the UN, a paradox is often evident. The UN’s failure to respond to the cholera epidemic it caused in Haiti is a prime example.
With the UN’s active adoption of the cause, we have witnessed a global increase in the promotion and protection of the principles of human rights and justice. Development of international human rights law based on the UN human rights conventions is an example of this phenomenon. Based on those conventions as well as its own Charter, among other things, the UN has stood as a guardian and responded to the violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms by insisting on the rule of law and accountability.
However, the UN’s reluctance to provide justice to Haitian cholera victims has left us doubtful as to whether or not, and to what extent, the UN is achieving its purposes in Haiti. Cholera broke out in Haiti in October 2010, and recent reports from the Haitian government indicate that so far, 7,885 people have died, and 633,906 people have been infected from cholera. Everyone involved agrees that the true numbers are even higher, as many cases go unreported. What’s worse, Haitians are still dying from cholera. Until cholera is eradicated, the number of victims will continue to rise.
The evidence from witnesses, experts, and scientific studies has shown that the cholera occurred as a result of: (a) the UN’s failure to maintain proper sanitation facilities at a base camp of Nepali peacekeepers, leading to the outflow of sewages in a river that Haitians rely on for their daily uses; (b) failure to test or treat Nepali peacekeepers prior to their deployment from Nepal, despite knowing about the presence of cholera in Nepal and the vulnerability of a country like Haiti to it; and (c) failure to take corrective measures to counter the outbreak.
When locals, media and experts pinpointed the UN as the cause for cholera, it refused to acknowledge even the merest possibility of responsibility. Finally, it formed an independent panel of experts to identify the source of cholera. So far, altogether nine different investigations, including that of the UN, have collectively pointed the finger at the UN itself. Recently, in the BBC news, a member of the UN panel also reaffirmed that the ‘most likely’ source of the cholera was the UN.
Yet the UN has not responded to these findings other than with continued denial. In November 2011, 5,000 cholera victims filed a petition at the UN, seeking access to water and sanitation, compensation, and a public apology, accepted as a part of human rights law by the UN conventions. Over a year has passed. Except for confirming the petition, the UN has done nothing for the victims. On December 11, 2012, the UN launched an initiative to eradicate cholera from Haiti by providing water and sanitation. This is a critical first step in the right direction, but still, it has utterly failed to guarantee justice to cholera victims.
In the past, the UN has investigated acts of child abuse, prostitution, rape, etc. by its peacekeepers in countries like Burundi, Liberia, Kosovo, and others. It issued resolutions, came up with a zero tolerance policy against such acts, revised its policies, and rigorously asked Troop Contributing Countries (TCC) to take stern actions against those peacekeepers so that it stands accountable. But the UN’s prolonged silence regarding cholera victims suggests double standards, because it is silent when it itself is involved in the wrongdoing.
A Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between the government of Haiti and the UN governs the UN’s engagement in Haiti. It allows for third party claims filed by petitioners, for property loss or damage, and for personal injury, illness or death, arising from or directly attributable to the UN. Additionally, the UN’s own international human rights conventions guarantee victims the right to an effective remedy, and the same, when embedded in the UN Charter, require UN accountability. Victims have demanded investigation, public safety against persistent cholera, and rule of law from the UN, which the UN aims to achieve through its mission in Haiti. The UN’s Security Council resolution that established its mission in Haiti aims to investigate human rights violations, maintenance of rule of law, and public safety in Haiti.
Instead of acting as a custodian for the safety, rights and remedies of cholera victims, the UN is conspicuously silent on the issue. If the UN wholeheartedly believes in its present mission in Haiti and its purpose of ensuring human rights and fundamental freedoms, it should not delay responding to the cries of thousands of cholera victims.
Everyone enjoys human rights and fundamental freedoms, and when these are violated, they should be remedied with justice, not impunity. Besides, that is what the UN ostensibly fights for. But the lack of response to cholera victims has not only diminished the organization’s own accountability, but also jeopardized its mission in Haiti. Our aim, along with the victims’, is to ensure that the UN always maintains its status as a guardian of human rights and fundamental freedoms of all. We will continue to push the UN until our quest for justice to cholera reaches a meaningful end.