Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

UN refuses to take responsibility for cholera in Haiti

This article was written for Omvärlden, the Swedish Development Agency’s magazine. This is the 2nd of two articles (here‘s the first) they wrote about the cholera hearing.

The pdf file is below. Here’s an unofficial translation:

UN refuses to take responsibility for cholera in Haiti

UN troops are understood to have caused the catastrophic cholera epidemic in Haiti. Yet the UN is rejecting all requests for compensation by pointing to its immunity.  Can an organization that works for human rights refuse people’s right to access justice? This question is now to be decided by a court in New York.

Haiti, October 2010. Jean Salgadeau Pelette who lives in the little mountain village of Meille, north of the capital Port-au-Prince, goes to take his usual morning dip in the river.  After a few ours, he is found unconscious by the river bank and is carried home. His relatives do not even have time to evaluate whether they should take him to the hospital, Jean is already dead by that same afternoon.

A week later, several thousand Haitians have been infected in what is now viewed as one of the world’s worst cholera epidemics.

The scale of the catastrophe is difficult to take in. First, Haiti was hit by a powerful earthquake.  Over 100,000 people died, even more were injured and over 1 million people became homeless.

Less than a year later – in the middle of the difficult reconstruction work – the epidemic broke out. Cholera had been eradicated from the country for around 100 years prior. Now, it spread quickly in the poor countryside and in the earthquake victims’ basic tent camps.

Doctors Without Borders deployed immediately to the affected areas.

Cholera is generally not difficult to treat. It involves preventing dehydration by providing liquids, either by cup, spoon or intravenously. But it must happen quickly. The course of the disease – from the first sign of symptoms of acute vomiting and diarrhea to death – can take just a few hours.

“The body dries out very fast. When so many become sick at the same time, we had a difficult time to coordinate the relief efforts in time.”  That was the case for many actors, explains Olivier Schulz, the country head in Haiti.

Today, four years later, the number of dead in Haiti exceeds 8,500 and the number sickened exceeds 700,000. That means that almost every ten Haitians have been infected with cholera.  And the danger isn’t over.

“The epidemic continues still, even though it has subsided significantly.  For the first time since 2010, the number of sick has one down dramatically this year, “ says Schulz.

In the first twelve months, Doctors Without Borders treated 150,000 patients, this year they’ve “only” treated 300. Aside from fewer Haitians residing in tent camps, the country’s sanitation situation has improved and more have learned how to avoid contracting the disease.

In the beginning, the earthquake or climate change were seen as possible causes of the cholera outbreak.  But fairly quickly, suspicion pointed to a UN base located by the river right by the village of Meille where the first cases were discovered. The UN denied the charges; the Nepalese peacekeeping troops that arrived only a week before had been tested before they came to Haiti.

But then medical experts demonstrated in several different studies – one of which was commissioned by the UN —that the relevant bacterial strain was most identical with the one active in Nepal.  The UN apparently placed too much trust in their own medical protocol.  What is more, the provisional sanitation system on the base contained serious inadequacies.

Untreated sewage ran, according to the epidemiologist, directly into the river Meille – which flows into Haiti’s largest river, the Artibonite. The consequences were devastating.

“It’s common to both wash and bathe and also gather water from that river, says Claes Hammar, the Sweden-based ambassador to Haiti who himself witnessed the tragedy on site in the fall of 2010.

“It was chaotic after the earthquake and politically unstable in advance of the elections. Cholera became yet another problem.”

When the first rumors surfaced that the UN could be behind the epidemic, violent riots broke out.

Officially, the UN has not admitted their responsibility or compensated the impacted. Nor have they established a claims commission – where the injured can turn with their claims and requests for compensation — as they are required to do for these types of disputes by their own regulations.

“It’s indefensible. The UN must solve the problem they themselves caused,” says Beatrice Lindstrom, a spokesperson for the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti, IJDH.

Together with the International Lawyers Office, BAI, IJDH demanded three years ago that the UN pay compensation to the Haitian cholera victims and fund the installation of better water and sanitation systems in the country.

Two years later, nothing had happened. Then both organizations decided to take the UN to court.  In October last year, they filed a complaint in federal court for the Southern District of New York.

The case consists of five Haitians, and they hope to set a precedent. One of them is Lisette Paul, who lost both her father and her brother to cholera.  The brother suddenly fell sick one day while working in the fields and died a week later despite receiving medical care.  Lisette’s sister-in-law was required to pull her oldest daughter out of school so the family could afford the funeral.  Today they are struggling to make a living, and are at daily risk of contracting cholera because they lack access to clean water.

“The individual compensation does not amount to a large amount for the UN, but for those impacted, the compensation would be life changing,” says Beatrice Lindstrom.

The former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay, as well as the new Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, have spoken out in support of the victims’ right to compensation.

The UN itself, through the host country United States, has repeatedly pointed to the organization’s immunity: the UN can’t be sued in a national court. That is an argument that “rings of double standards”, thinks Krister Thelin, who was a judge with the UN’s International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia in the Hague and until last year was a member of the UN Human Rights Committee.

He is one of 25 prominent jurists from around the world who support the litigation against the UN through a special submission to the court in New York.

“It’s unacceptable that an organization that fights for human rights can refuse people their right to access justice,” says Krister Thelin.

The court in New York has divided up the case against the UN in two parts. On October 23, there will be oral arguments on the UN’s immunity, and thereafter the actual trial may take place, dependent on the outcome in the first stage proceeding.

“The difficult hurdle is immunity.  If they prevail on that question, there will be no difficulty prevailing on liability,” says Krister Thelin.

Much points to him being right.  Leading up to a visit to Haiti in July 2014, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed regret for the cholera epidemic. According to AFP, he said that “regardless of what the legal implication may be, as the Secretary-General of the United Nations and as a person, I feel very sad. I believe that the international community, including the United Nations, has a moral responsibility to help the Haitian people stem the further spread of this cholera epidemic.”

The statement has been interpreted as an implied admission to the victims’ claims.

“We don’t understand why the UN doesn’t resolve the disputes directly rather than hiring all these expensive lawyers,” says Beatrice Lindstrom. She responds to her rhetorical question:

“The UN has grown used to being able to ignore these kinds of cases. They’ve either resolved disputes quietly, under the table, or the complainants have eventually given up. This is the first time that the protests are so loud. We hope the UN realizes that they can no longer simply sweep complaints under the rug.”

Respect for the UN looms large. Haiti’s government has kept a low profile throughout the process. The government hasn’t even supported the required claims commission for the victims, which it must do in order for the UN to establish it.

“Haiti’s government is presumably afraid to bump heads with the UN since they depend on UN support in other matters,” says Krister Thelin.

Even Swedish officials are keeping quiet.  Swedish politicians and “friends of the UN” are ducking the sensitive question with various excuses.

Under Secretary-General Jan Eliasson sends a message through his office in New York that he does not have time to comment.

Former Foreign Minister Carl Bildt points to the current Foreign Ministry leadership: “As outgoing Foreign Minister one shouldn’t opine on something that falls under the new Foreign Minister. That is considered good form in these circumstances,” he explains by email.  Current Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom has also declined to comment.

Hans Corell, who was the UN’s Legal Counsel from 1994-2004, also does not want to take a position:

“The Haiti case is unique. I know that this is viewed as a serious and deeply unfortunate thing inside the UN. But to be able to speak on it one has to be inside the organization with direct knowledge, which I am not. And I shouldn’t speak on this, where it may cause trouble for the current legal counsel.”

Has this turned into a case of maintaining pride?

“The case is extraordinarily complicated. Not in the least because it could involve huge compensation amounts. In the end it’s the member states who have to foot the bill. Somewhere there has to be a solution, but it’s hardly that a national court decides the case,” says Hans Corell.

In principle, Hans Corell has a large understanding for both the UN and the United States’ arguments.

“The UN must, just as other international organizations — and their personnel — have immunity.  They can’t be brought into national courts around the world. It would never work.”

But the UN must waive immunity when it’s accused of having committed a crime so the accused can be prosecuted, and also put in place a claims commission as needed, says Hans Corell.

He himself relied on both frequently. In the latter case, it was often for disputes with transportation companies that helped move troops.

At the same time, Corell admits that immunity is problematic.

A deployed UN solider who commits a crime – for example buys sex or violates the local population – is to be tried in his or her home country. But this assumes that the act is considered a crime in the home country.

A civil UN officer deployed on a peacekeeping mission does have to comply with the host country’s laws. The problem is that these troops often find themselves in countries where the legal system is dysfunctional.

“There is a large ongoing effort to review the rules of international organizations,” says Corell.

“Under no circumstances should the end result be that a UN employee goes unpunished for a crime he or she has committed.”

If the same reasoning holds true for the UN as an organization, that could have decisive implications for Lisette Paul and the thousands of her affected countrymen.


UN Scandals [boxed text]

The UN has a long history of scandal. Several have occurred in the Democratic Republic of Congo:

1961: Newly arrived UN-Swedes in the Congo visit a brothel on their first night. An investigation the same year shows that half of the deployed had sex during their stay in the Congo. After this, sexual relations with the prostitutes among the local population is forbidden.

2005: Employees of the Swedish Red Cross witnesses UN troops in Congo-Kinshasa regularly exchange food and money for sexual favors. The UN’s own investigation showed later that the sexual exploitation was extensive.  Once again, all relations with the local population in exchange for sexual favors is prohibited.

2008: A large group of Indian UN soldiers are exposed to have exploited both boys and girls over several years. The same year, BBC reveals that Pakistani and Indian troops exchange weapons for gold with Congolese rebel groups.


FN vägrar ta ansvar för koleraspridning på Haiti

Karolina Andersson, OmVärlden
November 2014

Here’s the pdf.

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