Haiti, cholera and the U.N.




Two years after Haiti’s deadly 2010 earthquake, a second humanitarian crisis continues to claim Haitian lives.

Whereas the first crisis was a natural disaster, the second — a massive outbreak of cholera — was man-made. Worse still, although the United Nations unwittingly caused the epidemic, the world’s largest humanitarian organization has disclaimed responsibility and has failed to address the legitimate demands of the thousands of Haitians affected.

In October 2010, U.N. peacekeeping troops stationed about 100 kilometers north of Port-au-Prince at a camp lacking basic sanitation facilities dumped human waste into a tributary of the Artibonite, the country’s largest river system. This set off what has become the world’s worst and fastest-spreading cholera epidemic, infecting over 500,000 people and killing more than 7,000.

Before late 2010, when U.N. troops arrived carrying pathogens from cholera-stricken Nepal, not a single case of cholera had been reported in Haiti for a century. Seven months after the outbreak, a U.N.-appointed independent panel of international experts released a report largely confirming what a number of epidemiological studies had already concluded: U.N. troops were the sole source of the disease. The report also found that the U.N. had failed not only to ensure proper sanitary waste disposal in accordance with its agreement with Haiti, but also to conduct adequate water safety tests or to take timely corrective measures when cholera exploded throughout the country.

As a result, by July 2011, cholera was spreading at the rate of one person per minute. In the absence of comprehensive efforts to combat the disease, cholera will plague Haiti for years to come. According to the U.N. Pan-American Health Organization, 200 new cholera cases continue to be reported daily, with an expected increase this month with the start of the rainy season.

Despite the U.N.’s clear culpability, the cholera victims have limited means of redress. According to the Status of Forces Agreement between Haiti and the United Nations, the victims have the right to file claims for unintentional harms caused by its personnel. Accordingly, the non-governmental organizations Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti and the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux have filed complaints on behalf of 5,000 victims. But the U.N. has failed to even set up a mechanism for receiving these claims, much less resolving them.

In the complaints delivered to the U.N., the victims request a public apology, compensation and new investments in water, sanitation and medical infrastructures as the highly contagious disease continues to debilitate the country. In the event that the U.N. continues to shirk its responsibility, the IJDH and BAI intend to seek legal redress. But the U.N. may attempt to claim qualified or absolute immunity — doctrines designed to shield certain international and sovereign entities from legal liability — to place itself beyond the power of the courts.

The U.N.’s continuing failure to account for its role in starting the epidemic is particularly disturbing given the organization’s humanitarian objectives. In 2004, the world body created the U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti, (known by its French acronym, MINUSTAH), “to ensure individual accountability for human rights abuses and redress for victims” and to “put an end to impunity” in Haiti.

MINUSTAH should hold itself to its own standards and provide redress to the thousands of victims who seek not a scapegoat, but a means to reverse U.N.-created harms. Accepting responsibility in this instance would give MINUSTAH the opportunity to reverse a tradition of U.N. impunity for its human rights violations in Haiti. In other instances of egregious misconduct — including the recent rape of a Haitian youth by U.N. soldiers, caught on video — the United Nations has failed to even issue an apology and has initiated only half-hearted and delayed investigations.

For the U.N. to claim immunity despite causing the cholera epidemic would amount to a refusal to live up to its agreement with Haiti, and a disavowal of the principles on which U.N. peacekeeping mission are based. And in the absence of a legal mechanism to address the victims’ complaints, hundreds of thousands of Haitians could be without remedy. For now, the crisis in Haiti continues to claim lives, and victims and their families have few places to turn.

Muneer I. Ahmad is a clinical professor at Yale Law School and directs the Transnational Development Clinic, of which Jane Chong, a second-year law student, is a member.


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