Originally published in Harvard Law Today.
In Q&A, Beatrice Lindstrom calls for international human rights organization to deliver remedies to cholera victims
In 2010, United Nations (U.N.) peacekeepers caused a devastating cholera outbreak in Haiti. Nearly a decade later and with COVID-19 threatening an already fragile situation, affected communities are still waiting for access to remedy. Beatrice Lindstrom, clinical instructor and supervising attorney in Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic, has been working for nearly a decade on pathbreaking advocacy to secure accountability from the U.N. for the destruction it caused. Lindstrom was lead counsel in Georges v. United Nations, a class action lawsuit on behalf of those injured by cholera. Prior to joining Harvard Law School, Lindstrom was the legal director of the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti.
Harvard Law Today: How and why did the 2010 cholera outbreak begin in Haiti?
Beatrice Lindstrom: Cholera was introduced to Haiti when the U.N. deployed peacekeepers from Nepal—which was experiencing a cholera outbreak—without testing or treating them for the disease. The peacekeepers were stationed on a base in rural Haiti that had reckless waste disposal practices. Untreated waste from the base’s toilets was routinely dumped into unprotected open-air pits that overflowed into the surrounding community and into a nearby tributary. That tributary feeds into the Artibonite River, the primary water source for tens of thousands of Haitians. The resulting outbreak is the deadliest cholera epidemic in the world: At least 10,000 people have died and approximately one million people have been sickened since 2010. To put it in context, the number of cholera infections per capita in Haiti still exceeds the COVID-19 infection rate in any nation.
HLT: How has the United Nations responded?
Lindstrom: Despite scientific consensus that the U.N. base was the source of the outbreak, the U.N. denied responsibility for six years and refused victims access to any forum to hear claims for remedies. The U.N. enjoys broad immunity, but is required to settle claims by civilians out of court. In 2011, the Haitian human rights organization Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) and its U.S.-based partner Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), where I then worked, filed claims on behalf of 5,000 victims. The U.N. rejected the claims without offering any legal justification, and has refused to refer the claims to an independent claims commission as required under international agreements. The U.N.’s own Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights called the U.N.’s response “morally unconscionable, legally indefensible, and politically self-defeating.”
It took an extraordinary mobilization of cholera-affected communities and allies in Haiti and abroad to persuade the U.N. to shift course. In 2016, the Secretary-General finally issued a public apology and launched a $400 million “New approach to cholera in Haiti.” But over three years later, the U.N. has raised only 5% of the $400 million promised, and has not paid any compensation to victims. Despite initially pledging to center victims in decision-making, critical decisions about the direction and content of the New Approach have been made without victim input. These deficiencies stem from the U.N.’s continued denial of legal responsibility for the outbreak, which would trigger funding through assessed contributions from its member states and ensure that responsibility is shared collectively across the organization. Instead, remedies for cholera victims is treated as charity and left to compete with other humanitarian causes.
Read the full Q&A here.