Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

As the UN Evades Responsibility for the Cholera Epidemic, Haitians Continue to Suffer

By Lauren Carasik, Common Dreams
May 13, 2013

Advocates for over 5,000 victims of cholera in Haiti put the UN on notice that they intend to file suit in a national court if the UN continues its refusal to provide compensation for its negligence in introducing cholera to the country. Haiti’s first cholera epidemic in over a century compounded the misery in a country reeling from the devastating 2010 earthquake that ravaged its already vulnerable health and sanitation system. As of this month, the epidemic has caused incalculable suffering – the death toll from cholera exceeds 8,100, and over 654,000 Haitians have been sickened.  Despite multiple scientific studies that have consistently attributed the cause of the outbreak of cholera in Haiti to UN troops from Nepal and the UN’s negligent waste disposal system, the UN is claiming that it is immune from claims.

The Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti and the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux submitted a claim on behalf of cholera victims for relief and reparations to the UN on November 3, 2011, requesting that the UN upgrade the national water and sanitation infrastructure, provide compensation to victims for their losses, and issue a public apology. For more than a year, the UN refused to formally respond to the claim. Finally, in a  letter dated February 21, 2013, the UN dismissed these claims, asserting that they are “not receivable pursuant to Section 29 of the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations,” and justifying immunity on the theory that “consideration of these claims would necessarily include a review of political and policy matters.”  Despite this assertion, the UN declined to provide any real legal justification for its avoidance of responsibility, which lawyers for the claimants characterize as flimsy. As advocates note, the negligent disposal of waste hardly constitutes “political and policy matters.”  In addition to claiming immunity, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has pointedly declined to accept or deny the UN’s responsibility for introducing cholera to Haiti, despite the overwhelming scientific evidence of its culpability.

For an institution whose mission includes upholding the rule of law and alleviating poverty, the UN’s conduct in administering and overseeing its troops’ “stabilization mission” in Haiti, known by its French acronym, MINUSTAH, has been deplorable.  The Status of Forces Agreement between the UN and the Haitian government required the UN to institute a Standing Claims Commission to resolve civil claims against MINUSTAH troops. Despite the presence of MINUSTAH troops in Haiti since 2004, the UN never set up the Commission, depriving Haitians of any mechanism to redress grievances. The UN’s refusal to accept responsibility for cholera occurs against a backdrop of impunity for misconduct perpetrated by MINUSTAH troops in Haiti, such as sexual misconduct, including Uruguayan soldiers whose sexual assault of a young man was recorded on video, and credible charges against Pakistani and Sri Lankan troops.  Critics note that the presence of MINUSTAH remains controversial among Haitians, and that the $648 million per year budget for the UN peacekeeping mission could instead be repurposed to fund two years of the cholera elimination initiative.

Aside from the legal imperative, the UN has a moral obligation to remedy the harm it caused in Haiti.  In tacit recognition of its obligation to help ameliorate the devastating impact of the cholera epidemic, Ban Ki-moon vowed five months ago to “use every opportunity” to generate the resources necessary to end cholera in Haiti.  Despite its laudatory pronouncement, fundraising efforts have yielded only a fraction of the necessary money to combat cholera, a shortfall exacerbate other failures in the flow of aid to Haiti – more than a third of the $5.4 billion that the international community pledged for reconstruction has not been paid.  According to a report issued by Physicians for Haiti, the UN also refuses to implement the recommendations of its own experts to prevent a recurrence, despite the fact that three of the recommendations could be implemented at either no or minimal cost to the UN.

Advocates notified the UN in a response letter dated May 7 that if there was not progress toward a reasonable resolution of these claims, they will file suit in a national court, convinced that the law is on their side. As the UN evades responsibility, the economic and human costs of delaying remediation of the epidemic are incalculable, and cholera continues to inflict preventable suffering and deaths. Although cholera has receded temporarily, cases between November through February were higher than the same period last year.  Moreover, the rainy season is looming, which typically ushers in a spike in cases.  Experts note that a well-managed effort is required to completely eliminate the epidemic. Haiti’s vulnerability to a epidemic emanating from water-borne disease was not a surprise, nor is the impoverished country’s inability to vanquish cholera on its own. While the Haitian government lacks the institutional and financial resources to address this crisis, the UN has both the legal and moral obligation to provide reparations and to finance improvements to the weak health and sanitation infrastructure that impede the eradication of cholera on Haitian soil.  This UN’s response to the cholera crisis it caused demonstrates why a lawsuit is critical:  both to force the UN to take the steps necessary to control the epidemic, and to set standards of accountability and deterrence, by making the price of future malfeasance unpalatable.

Lauren Carasik is a Clinical Professor of Law and the Director of the International Human Rights Clinic and the Legal Services Clinic at Western New England University School of Law.

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