Haiti’s Cholera Epidemic Reveals UN Defying Its Own Treaties

Haiti may be on the UN General Assembly’s agenda again, but the real confrontation with the Caribbean nation is set to take place in a nearby New York courthouse. Several groups have hit the United Nations with class-action lawsuits over a four-year cholera epidemic that many studies have traced to Nepalese peacekeepers at a UN camp.

Demonstrators march in Boston against UN officials unwilling to face up to negligence in Haiti. (IJDH)

In 2010, Haiti was devastated by an earthquake that hit the country’s capital, killing hundreds of thousands and leaving an additional 2 million homeless. Shortly afterwards, a cholera epidemic swept the country, sickening about 700,000 people and killing around 8,500, according to the UN mission in Haiti.

Multiple studies, including one from Yale University, affirm that the epidemic spread from peacekeepers in a UN camp about 35 miles from Port-au-Prince. UN officials, however, have refused to accept responsibility.

In 2011, the Office of International Lawyers (BAI) and the Boston-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) began filing claims for compensation on behalf of Haitian and Haitian-American victims and their families — but to no avail. In 2013, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon wrote to members of the US Congress: “After careful deliberation, claimants were informed that the claim is not receivable.”

So last year, the two public-interest law firms and a private law firm (KKWT) sued the United Nations, seeking compensation for “personal injury, wrongful death, emotional distress, loss of use of property and natural resources, and breach of contract.” Two other groups have subsequently filed separate lawsuits against the United Nations for the cholera epidemic.

The Irony: Flouting International Law

Beatrice Lindstrom, an IJDH staff attorney, says treaties give the United Nations legal immunity when the organization sends peacekeepers. Instead, it is supposed to organize a Standing Claims Commission to determine whether the United Nations can be held liable for damages against a person and, if so, for how much.

But Lindstrom says that UN officials didn’t organize a Standing Claims Commission in Haiti, nor have they done so in any of the countries in which they’ve launched peacekeeping missions in the past 66 years. In other words, if the United Nations does something wrong in a country where the organization has peacekeepers, there is simply nowhere for victims to turn.

Beatrice Lindstom (left) participates in the march... (@BeaLindstrom)
Beatrice Lindstom (left) and Peggy Chateauneuf (right), of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, at the cholera demonstration outside the UN General Assembly in New York. (@BeaLindstrom)

The victims’ lawyers assert that the United Nations has breached the terms of its agreement, so the institution shouldn’t be able to claim immunity. “This question [of UN responsibility] has never really been asked before,” Lindstrom explains.

When I interviewed Lindstrom earlier this month, the two sides had sent written arguments to the federal court in the Southern District of New York. UN officials have asked the US Justice Department to argue their side, and in July, the United States asserted that the United Nations does have legal immunity. IJDH, BAI, and KKWT have in turn asked the court to grant oral arguments, but Lindstrom could not say when the request might be granted.

Growing Discontent in Haiti, beyond the Epidemic

Anthropologist Mark Schuller, who has written extensively on Haiti, says that over the years the United Nations and its peacekeepers have earned an unsavory reputation among the country’s population, stemming from allegations of theft and sexual assault. The United Nations first installed the peacekeeping force in 2004, after the ouster of President Bertrand Aristide.

In July, the UN financial committee approved a budget of $US539.11 million for another year of Haiti’s peacekeeping mission, and the Security Council will vote on whether to renew the mission in October. Lindstrom said the annual renewal is greeted with protests across Haiti.

Though Haiti’s peacekeeping mission is one of 16 currently in operation, the country hasn’t had an armed conflict in a decade. The secretary-general even recently wrote a report that suggested a “drawdown” over two years in the number of forces in Haiti.

But that plan could hinge on the country’s elections, which are scheduled for next month, but were initially intended to be held in 2011. The New York Times reports that, if voting is not held, the entire Parliament could be dissolved in January, and the Security Council has expressed concern over the delay.

Haitian Government, United Nations Asleep at the Switch

The Haitian government is not involved with the cholera litigation, and has so far been silent on the issue. In fact, the government had not officially mentioned the epidemic at all in an international setting until last year, three years after cholera’s debut in the country. This year, Haitian President Michel Martelly gave two sentences in his comments regarding the peacekeeping forces and cholera, but the broader Haitian mission to the United Nations declined to comment.

Since the outbreak, incidences of cholera have declined by 75 percent, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has asked for $2.2 billion to banish cholera from the country. But the plan has gone largely unfunded, and critics have argued that many of the solutions in place are mere Band-Aids.

French doctor Renaud Piarroux, who performed one of the first studies to connect UN peacekeepers to the cholera epidemic, wrote in an email that the Haitian government and UN strategy for eradication was too expensive and ineffective. He and his group are also working against cholera in Haiti, but at a fraction of the UN fund’s cost. With $10 million, they have already reduced cholera presence by 90 percent. “Our objective is to reach elimination by the end of this year and to consolidate the results in the first months of 2015,” Piarroux said.

Despite the simmering lawsuit, it still looks unlikely that the issue of Haiti, its cholera epidemic, and the UN role in it will come before the General Assembly. “The situation of democracy and human rights in Haiti” went on the agenda in 1991, to condemn President Aristide’s first removal from power. Since then, Haiti has come and gone from the agenda, in case any nation wants to resurrect the subject, but none has.

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