Published: October 12, 2013
Haiti’s cholera epidemic, now entering its fourth year, has killed more than 8,300 people and sickened more than 650,000. It is a calamity, though one fundamentally different from the earthquake, hurricanes and floods that have beset the fragile country since 2010.
It is, instead, a man-made disaster, advocates for Haitian victims contend, asserting the epidemic is a direct result of the negligence of United Nations peacekeepers who failed to keep their contaminated sewage out of a river from which thousands of Haitians drink.
The United Nations has refused to accept blame, though the evidence of its peacekeepers’ recklessness is overwhelming. Haiti had been free of cholera for a century until October 2010, when the outbreak began near a peacekeepers’ base that had been leaking human waste through broken pipes into a tributary of the Artibonite River; the peacekeepers were from Nepal, and so was the cholera strain.
A lawsuit filed in Federal District Court in Manhattan last week by an advocacy group seeks financial reparations from the United Nations on behalf of thousands of sickened Haitians. The United Nations’ response — as it has been the last three years — was to claim immunity from litigation while expressing sympathy for the dead and infected, and promising to keep working to eradicate the epidemic.
The lawsuit’s chances of success are unclear, given the United Nations’ strong claims to diplomatic immunity, a principle embedded in its founding documents to enable the work it does across the globe. But even a body immune to legal claims cannot shed accountability. As researchers from Yale Law School laid out in July in an examination of the cholera fiasco, the United Nations’ immunity does not confer absolute impunity. In the agreement it signed with the Haitian government when it established a peacekeeping force there long before the 2010 quake, the United Nations promised to create a commission to review claims related to complaints about its troops.
Such a commission has never been established, the Yale report noted, calling it a clear violation of the United Nations’ contractual obligations to Haiti, but also of its responsibilities under international human rights law. Beyond that, the report concluded, the body “risks losing its moral ground by refusing to comply with the very law it demands states and other international actors respect.”
There is no disputing that the United Nations has saved and improved lives in Haiti since the quake; its peacekeepers and humanitarian workers need to stay as the country struggles to recover. And the broad principle of its immunity is important. But the lives lost and blighted because of United Nations negligence are important, too.
There is no denying that the United Nations has failed to face up to its role in a continuing tragedy. It should acknowledge responsibility, apologize to Haitians and give the victims the means to file claims against it for the harm they say has been done them. It can also redouble its faltering, underfinanced response to the epidemic, which threatens to kill and sicken thousands more in the coming decade.