Originally published in Foreign Policy
February 4, 2020
The Roots of Moral Decline
But even critics such as Gilmour don’t place all the blame on Guterres. The roots of the U.N.’s moral failings, Gilmour suggests, predate his arrival, reaching a high point in the U.N. decision to shirk responsibility for its peacekeepers introducing cholera into Haiti in 2010.
The U.N. legal counsel at the time, Patricia O’Brien of Ireland, was at the forefront of efforts to insulate the U.N. from any legal liability for Haiti’s cholera epidemic, which was traced back to a Nepalese peacekeeping contingent.
Her successor, Miguel de Serpa Soares of Portugal, maintained the U.N.’s hard-line legal position, triggering a scathing rebuke from the special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston: “The U.N.’s explicit and unqualified denial of anything other than a moral responsibility is a disgrace,” he said in October 2016.
The U.N.’s legal office, he added, put forward a “patently artificial and wholly unfounded legal pretense for insisting that the [U.N.] must not take legal responsibility for what it has done.” In response to Alston’s findings, document in a report earlier that year, the U.N. deputy secretary-general at the time, Jan Eliasson, pressed Guterres’s predecessor, Ban Ki-moon, to accept some share of the blame for the cholera epidemic. But he faced intense resistance from the lawyers, who vigorously opposed any acknowledgement of responsibility, according to several U.N. sources.
In December 2016, Ban did ultimately issue a formal apology to the Haitians for playing a role in the cholera outbreak and acknowledged the U.N. bore a “moral responsibility” to help Haitians recover from the calamity—though he never accepted legal responsibility, sparing U.N. member states the obligation to pay compensation.
Serpa Soares hit back at his critics, dismissing Alston’s findings as “a piece of advocacy.” He also disputed the portrayal of an internal bureaucratic fight over the admission of responsibility for the Haiti cholera epidemic. “There was no disagreement,” he said. “I was absolutely instrumental in validating that new approach.”
Gilmour wrote in his farewell email that nothing in the U.N.’s recent history “comes close to the ethical morass of our response on Haiti cholera.” But he said the “shame” was compounded by efforts to “impugn the integrity” of U.N. officials who had pushed “for some form of UN apology and at least ‘moral responsibility’” for what happened in Haiti.
“Our Organization makes great play of demanding accountability on the part of others,” Gilmour added. “Thus the sight of the extraordinary internal campaign (that was waged to thwart DSG Eliasson’s efforts) of presenting legal arguments against even the most limited accountability for that avoidable tragedy, while derisively rejecting arguments in support of the UN Charter and Haitians’ rights, may rank as the single greatest example of hypocrisy in our 75-year history.”
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