Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

UN’s immunity and impunity in the times of cholera and other calamities

Rasna Warah,  Daily Nation
March 17th, 2013

It is a scandal beyond belief. After starting a cholera epidemic in Haiti in 2010, which has so far claimed more than 8,000 lives, the United Nations has not only denied responsibility, but is using its “diplomatic immunity” status to deny the victims’ families compensation.

To add insult to injury, the UN has launched a $2 billion appeal to fight the very epidemic that it introduced to Haiti in the first place.

Reports indicate that it began in 2010 when the UN sent Nepalese peacekeepers to Haiti without first screening them for cholera and other diseases.

Haiti was still recovering from a massive earthquake when the infected soldiers dumped sewage into a river system used by the local people.

More than 647,000 people have since been infected with cholera, and the numbers keep growing – this in a country that had not seen a single case of cholera for over a century.

According to journalist Jonathan Katz who has documented the cholera crisis in Haiti in his book The Big Truck That Went By, the UN tried to cover up the cause of the epidemic by hindering the work of public health investigators.

However, scientists eventually identified the particular strain of cholera infecting people in Haiti as the same one that was circulating in Nepal then.

The families of the victims claimed compensation from the UN. Last month the UN stated that their demands were “not receivable” and that the UN enjoyed legal immunity.

Critics say that UN immunity often translates into impunity. Since it was established, the UN has used “diplomatic immunity” to protect itself from being sued for all manner of atrocities that it has committed around the world.

Diplomatic immunity means that the UN or its staff members cannot be charged for negligence, theft, fraud, rape, or even murder unless the UN Secretary-General allows for the lifting of immunity in individual cases, which rarely happens.

No one, for instance, has been charged for the “Oil-for-Food” scandal in Iraq when more than $10 billion disappeared into the personal accounts of Saddam Hussein, politicians (some from countries represented at the UN Security Council) and UN staff members.

“If a multinational company behaved the way the UN did in Haiti, it would be sued for stratospheric amounts of money,” wrote Armin Rosen in The Atlantic.

“And that’s just for starters: Were Unilever or Coca Cola responsible for a cholera outbreak that killed 8,000 people and infected 640,000 or more and subsequently covering up its employees’ failure to adhere to basic sanitation standards, it is likely that their executives would have difficulty visiting countries claiming universal legal jurisdiction. They would have to contend with Interpol red notices, along with the occasional cream pie attack.”

The UN and its spin-doctors have always denied wrongdoing, even when it has led to loss of life.

The most recent case is that of Zimbabwe where the UN denied that a cholera epidemic was underway in 2008, even while thousands of children were dying from the disease.

The staffer who alerted the UN about the epidemic was fired apparently because senior UN officials did not want to upset President Robert Mugabe with the bad news.

However, while it is difficult to directly link the UN to loss of life in Zimbabwe, in Haiti’s case, the link couldn’t be more stark.

And yet, even in an open-and-shut case such as this, the UN has failed to be accountable – let alone apologise – to the very people it was supposed to assist. On the contrary, it is asking taxpayers to clean up the mess it created.

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