The cholera outbreak in Haiti is the UN’s Watergate, except with far fewer consequences for the people responsible and an immeasurably more disastrous real-world impact.
And an exchange of letters between three UN special rapporteurs and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon late last year shows that the world body is still shielding itself from scrutiny.
A cholera outbreak began about 10 months after Haiti’s catastrophic January 2010 earthquake. The outbreak was curious even despite the ruination of the country’s infrastructure and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people after the quake — there hadn’t been a single case of the disease in the country since the mid-1960s or perhaps even earlier.
Scientists and journalists, most notably Jonathan Katz, the Associated Press’s former Port au Prince bureau chief, have conclusively proven that the cholera was brought to the country by Nepalese peacekeepers, and that the disease entered Haiti’s water system through a peacekeeping base’s improperly managed human waste disposal site, which leaked into the Artibonite River.
As Katz has documented, the UN effectively covered up its responsibility in the early days of the outbreak, delaying a potentially life-saving medical understanding of the pathway and nature of the epidemic. The UN has refused to acknowledge its culpability even as it became apparent that if it weren’t for the UN’s deficient screening of its peacekeepers and the negligence of its Nepalese peacekeeping contingent in Haiti, there wouldn’t be any cholera in Haiti at all.
To date, the epidemic killed around 9,000 people by the end of 2014 and infected more than 1 in 20 Haitians. Thanks to the 1946 Convention on Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations, the UN enjoys broad and nearly absolute legal protection in most places on earth. Haitian cholera victims have had no luck pursuing cases against the UN in US court. Most recently, a suit against the UN on cholera victims’ behalf was dismissed in US federal court in January of 2015, although there are plans to appeal the ruling later this year.
The UN is required to set up alternative mechanisms within the UN system so that it can redress complaints without waiving immunity. But it hasn’t done this yet for Haitian cholera victims, since it doesn’t think it’s responsible for the outbreak.
If the UN were truly convinced of its actual, long-term legal immunity in this matter, it might be willing to acknowledge its responsibility for the outbreak with complete confidence that it wouldn’t be sued in a national court at some future point.
But instead of either waiving immunity or admitting that its mistakes and misdirections led to the cholera outbreak, the UN has chosen a problematic middle-route. They have refused to claim responsibility, deepening distrust of the UN and complicating relief efforts, while invoking legal immunity and resisting any attempt at redress within the UN system itself.
The UN is behaving like an organisation that knows it has something to hide — but its immunity gives it a legal out that few other organisations on earth really have.
“If they were confident in the idea that they weren’t responsible, there’s no reason they shouldn’t allow victims to have a fair trial,” Beatrice Lindstrom, a staff attorney at the US-based Institute for Democracy and Justice in Haiti, told Business Insider.
But they haven’t gotten a fair trial. And in October of 2014, three UN special rapporteurs had grown concerned enough to send an accusation letter (embedded below) to the office of Secretary General Ban Ki Moon.
A special rapporteur is an unpaid expert the UN commissions to study various matters of international importance on its behalf. They are not officially UN employees, but are integral parts of the broader UN system. Special rapporteurs often send accusation letters aimed at states or other institutions who they believe are not fulfilling their obligations under the UN charter or other international conventions.
This one was directed at the UN itself.
“We express serious concern that, allegedly, the United Nations failed to take reasonable precautions and act with due diligence to prevent the introduction and the outbreak of cholera in Haiti since 2010,” Leilani Farha, Dainius Puras, and Catarina de Albuquerque wrote. They are the “Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living,” on “the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health,” and on “the right to safe drinking water and sanitation,” respectively.
“We further express serious concern that to this date, allegedly, individuals affected by the cholera outbreak have been denied access to legal remedies and have not received compensation. Finally, we express concern that to date efforts to combat cholera and to improve the water and sanitation facilities in Haiti have been inadequate.”
The letter included an “annex,” citing “international human rights instruments and standards relevant to these allegations.” In essence, the rapporteurs went on record accusing the UN of violating international human rights law by failing to create an alternative mechanism for cholera victims to bring cases against the UN and for shirking its responsibility to clean up the mess its peacekeepers had made in various other ways as well.
The office of the Secretary General responded about a month later with a 33-page letter of its own, six-times the length of the rapporteurs’ “letter of accusation.”
It recalled that an “independent panel” convened by the UN had “concluded that the outbreak was caused by a confluence of circumstances and that it was not the fault of, or due to deliberate action by, a group or individual.” And it reviewed a series of relief efforts within Haiti and institutional changes that had been implemented since the outbreak, including increased medical standards for peacekeepers from cholera-affected nations.
Ban promised the UN was pursuing a “comprehensive” approach to ending cholera in Haiti. But the letter upheld the UN’s legal immunity, even though it went out of its way to note that cholera victims’ inability to sue didn’t lessen the UN’s moral responsibility to them: “The Secretary-General has made it very clear, that while the claims have been deemed not receivable under Section 29 of the General Convention and that the immunity of the United Nations before national courts should be upheld, this does not in any way diminish the commitment of the United Nations to do all that it can to help the people of the Haiti overcome the cholera epidemic.”
Some would doubt whether the UN really is doing “all it can.” Although cholera now impacts around .05% of the population, cases creeped upwards at the end of 2014. In January of 2015, there was a 75% higher incidence than experts expected in mid-2014, and a 50% spike in cases compared to the year before.
Even if the epidemic is technically “under control” by epidemiological standards that has more to do with a dry 2014 than than with the disease’s retreat — cholera is water-borne, and the disease is one major hurricane or tropical storm away from an even more accelerated comeback.
Ban’s response also dodges the issue of the UN’s refusal to set up an alternate mechanism for bringing cholera claims against the UN. “What this shows is that they don’t have a real explanation for why they dismissed the claims,” says Lindstrom.
But the exchange of letters still shows that there’s a growing movement of UN-linked figures who realise the world body’s position on the outbreak is no longer tenable.
“This signals an important shift within the UN,” says Lindstrom. “People within the system itself are speaking out against this. They’re basically saying that the UN is violating human rights and are asking critical questions that the UN needs to answer.”
The letters can be found below in full. Business Insider has reached out to Ban Ki-Moon’s office, and will update when we receive a response.
The allegation letter:
And Ban Ki-Moon’s response: