Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

Violations of the Right to Effective Remedy: The UN’s Responsibility for Cholera in Haiti

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Executive Summary

In December 2016, the United Nations (UN) Secretary-General delivered a landmark public apology for the organization’s role in causing the world’s deadliest cholera epidemic in Haiti. Acknowledging both the suffering in Haiti and the resulting damage to the UN’s reputation, helaunched a “New Approach to Cholera in Haiti.” This $400 million plan was intended to end cholera in Haiti, provide assistance to those most affected, and turn the page on a shameful chapter in UN history.

The UN’s responsibility for the cholera outbreak is no longer in dispute. The UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) improperly disposed of contaminated fecal waste into a tributary of the Artibonite River in 2010, introducing cholera to the country.(1) The epidemic, now in its tenth year, has killed at least 9,789 people and sickened 819,000.(2) Cholera has caused ongoing harm to survivors and affected communities across Haiti, resulting in violations of the rights to life, health, water and sanitation, and an adequate standard of living. Survivors report weakened physical health and ongoing trauma. Children have lost parents and breadwinners, resulting in severe instability and lost schooling. Families continue to struggle to pay off debt for medical care and burial expenses, and such debt has often plunged them deeper into poverty.

For six years following the introduction of cholera, the UN denied incontrovertible evidence of its own responsibility and refused victims access to any forum to hear claims for remedies. Thisresponse eroded the UN’s moral authority, damaged its relationship with the Haitian people, andfurther violated the rights and dignity of victims. It took an extraordinary mobilization of cholera-affected communities and allies in Haiti and abroad, including civil society, the media, public officers, and UN special procedures to persuade the UN to shift course. In 2014, UN special procedures filed a joint allegation letter raising concern that the UN was violating human rights, including the right to effective remedy.(3) The continued engagement of special procedures between 2014-2016 played a key role in prompting the UN to admit its role.

Despite serious limitations to the plan, the UN’s launch of the New Approach presented a criticalopportunity to repair victims’ injuries and restore trust in the UN. In the words of the Secretary-General, it became “an important test” of the UN’s commitment to its own principles.(4)

Three years since its launch, however, it has become clear that the New Approach is a fundamentally inadequate response to the harms caused by the UN. This submission documents violations of the right to an effective remedy caused by the grave deficiencies in the UN’s response since 2016. It is grounded in the experiences and testimony of victims as captured in focus groups and interviews conducted by the submitting organizations and other human rights groups, social scientists, medical professionals, and independent journalists. It explains the need for urgent intervention to address the harms caused by cholera and to protect the rights of cholera victims.

Key findings:

  •  The UN’s reliance on charitable contributions hindered the plan’s success from theoutset and has resulted in vastly inadequate funding. At the time of this submission, the UN has raised only 5% of the $400 million necessary to implement the New Approach. The Secretary-General has declined to fund the plan through assessed contributions, resulting in a high likelihood that the UN will never be able to deliver on its commitments under the New Approach. The dearth in funding—rather than victims’ rights or the UN’s duties—has determined the content and scope of the New Approach.
  • Victims continue to be denied compensation. The UN’s elaboration and implementationof the New Approach indicate that the organization has made a unilateral decision to foreclose compensation in favor of community projects. The only material assistance offered by the UN to date is five $150,000 infrastructure projects around Mirebalais, with another 20 projects commencing in four communes around Cap-Haïtien in the North of the country.(5) The UN has never established a standing claims commission through which victims can claim compensation, as required under its Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with Haiti, or established any alternative independent mechanism to determine appropriate remedies for victims.
  • Victims are being denied the right to participate in the design of remedies, undermining effectiveness and legitimacy. Despite commitments to “place victims at the center,” the UN has not treated victims as rights-holders with a seat at the decision- making table. Before launching the New Approach, the UN failed to analyze the harms victims had suffered, or to assess their perspectives and needs when crafting the plan. Critical decisions about the direction and content of the New Approach are now being made without input from victims, resulting in an effort that lacks legitimacy and isunresponsive to victims’ priorities. UNDP excluded those victims who were most prepared to participate in consultations and labeled them a ‘risk’ to the success of theendeavor.(6)
  • The UN continues its unsafe sanitation management across peacekeeping bases globally, posing a grave threat to health of other peacekeeping host communities. UN audits reveal that the UN continues to employ reckless sanitation practices across numerous peacekeeping missions, creating an ongoing risk of recurrence in vulnerable countries where the UN operates.(7) Moreover, the same system that operated to deny cholera victims access to remedies remains in place across the UN’s operations today. The UN has not undertaken any review of its claims system to ensure victims of future harms have an accessible, transparent, and impartial mechanism through which to seek remedies.

    The UN’s ongoing failure to provide effective remedies to victims of cholera has prolonged suffering in Haiti, and sends a harmful message to states that remedying violations of human rights is optional. The UN’s effectiveness in the promotion of human rights globally depends onits ability to exercise moral authority to persuade actors to respect, protect, and fulfill human rights. The erosion of that moral authority undermines the UN human rights system, and merits the urgent attention of special procedures.


    1 See e.g., U.N. Secretary-General, A new approach to cholera in Haiti, ¶ 21-22, U.N. Doc. A/71/620 (Nov. 25, 2016), https://undocs.org/A/71/620; Philip Alston (Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights),Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, ¶ 13-18, U.N. Doc. A/71/367 (Aug. 26, 2016).
    2 OCHA, Haiti Cholera Figures (Jan. 30, 2019), https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/ocha-hti- cholera-figures-20190131_en.pdf.

    3 Letter from Leilani Farha Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living et al. to the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, HTI 3/2014 (Sep. 25, 2014), https://spcommreports.ohchr.org/TMResultsBase/DownLoadPublicCommunicationFile?gId=18990 [hereinafter“2014 Joint Allegation Letter”].

    4 U.N. Secretary-General, Secretary-General’s remarks to the General Assembly on a New Approach to Address Cholera in Haiti (New York, Dec. 1, 2016), https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/sg/statement/2016-12-01/secretary- generals-remarks-general-assembly-new-approach-address.

    5 See Community Assistance to Mirebalais: New UN Approach to Cholera in Haiti Proposal, United Nations Haiti Cholera Response Multi-Partner Trust Fund, at 5-11, Apr. 8, 2019, available athttp://mptf.undp.org/document/download/18291. The UN has allocated $5,579,934 to community projects in total.See Project Fact Sheet, Phase 2 Community Assistance, http://mptf.undp.org/factsheet/project/00115476.

    6 Numerous UN progress updates list mobilization and commemorative activities by organized victims’ groups working with the BAI in Mirebalais as a risk. See e.g., October 2018 Project Monthly Progress Report, Community Assistance to Mirebalais: New UN Approach to Cholera in Haiti, United Nations Multi-Partner Trust Fund, http://mptf.undp.org/document/download/20606; November 2018 Project Monthly Progress Report, Community Assistance to Mirebalais: New UN Approach to Cholera in Haiti, United Nations Multi-Partner Trust Fund, http://mptf.undp.org/document/download/20909; December 2018 Project Monthly Progress Report, Community Assistance to Mirebalais: New UN Approach to Cholera in Haiti, United Nations Multi-Partner Trust Fund, http://mptf.undp.org/document/download/21391. See also discussion on pp. 27-28, infra.

    7 See e.g., Office of Internal Oversight Services [OIOS], Audit of waste management in the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, Rep. No. 2015/181, Dec. 17, 2015, https://oios.un.org/file/5957/download?token=Kvlo9gC1 (finding failures to maintain septic tanks and remove sludge, unacceptable mixing of hazardous and organic waste); OIOS, Audit of waste management and selected environmental activities in the United Nations Mission in Liberia,Rep. No. 2016/028, Mar. 21, 2016, https://oios.un.org/file/6068/download?token=2H7woX_n (finding untreated sewage in rainwater drains, inadequate plumbing, cracked septic tanks and inadequate contained gray water); OIOS,Audit of Waste Management in the United Nations Operation in Cote d’Ivoire, Rep. No. 2016/107, Sep. 29, 2015, https://oios.un.org/file/5747/download?token=JVJ2fnXJ; OIOS, Audit of Waste Management in the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rep. No. 2015/116, Oct. 2, 2015, https://oios.un.org/file/5771/download?token=–8P7aDF (finding insufficient septic tanks and soak pits); OIOS, Audit of Waste Management in the African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur, Rep. No. 2015/065, June 26, 2015, https://oios.un.org/file/5627/download?token=6rXK025k (finding dumping of kitchen organic waste into open pits; Interoffice Memorandum from Milan Trajanovic, Director of Mission Support, to Braima Jamanca, Chief Service Delivery, re: MINUSCA Waste Management Status Update and Risks, Ref. no. CSD/025/16, Oct. 3, 2016, http://innercitypress.com/UNgarbageCARleak2icp.pdf (finding misuses of dumpsite to present a health hazard to the local population, and noting that the Mission should correct this due to litigation fears following Haiti); see also Rick Gladstone, Poor Sanitation Persisted at U.N. Missions Long After Haiti Cholera Outbreak, N.Y. Times, Aug. 19, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/20/world/americas/haiti-cholera-sanitation-un-peacekeepers.html (reporting on the results of the audits).

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