No Immunity from Cholera: the UN’s Role in the 2010 Haitian Outbreak
The United Nations cannot claim to address and prevent human rights violations while simultaneously failing to acknowledge the culture of impunity and alarming lack of accountability within the organization. Immunity should exist solely to ensure the security of UN peacekeepers during their missions. Instead, the UN uses absolute immunity as a bureaucratic tactic to avoid responsibility when their soldiers violate the human rights of the citizens they are mandated to protect. The UN continues to hide behind its shield of impunity despite its recent unequivocal violation of human rights in the case of the cholera outbreak in Haiti.
In October 2010, an outbreak of cholera appeared in Haiti for the first time in nearly a century (1). As of February 2016, there have been 770,000 reported cholera cases and 9,200 deaths (2). The first reported cases coincided directly with the arrival of peacekeepers from the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). The troops were deployed from an area of Nepal, a cholera endemic country, which had just experienced a major outbreak in the month prior to their departure (3). Evidence overwhelmingly confirmed that the source of the Haitian cholera outbreak was due to “contamination of the Méyè Tributary of the Artibonite River with a pathogenic strain of South Asian type Vibrio cholerae as a result of human activity” (4). The evidence not only confirms that the UN was responsible for bringing cholera into Haiti, but that it did so recklessly, allowing human waste from the peacekeeping base to be discharged into the tributary leading to Haiti’s principle water source (5). Despite the knowledge of the recent cholera outbreak in Nepal, the organization only tested symptomatic soldiers for cholera, even though 75% of cholera cases present as asymptomatic (6).
The latest of three class-action lawsuits, seeking compensation and reparations on the behalf of the Haitian cholera victims, was filed against the UN in October 2013. Despite ample, convincing evidence pointing to the UN as the singular cause of this epidemic, the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, issued a statement saying “the claims are not receivable, pursuant to Section 29 of the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations”. The statement subsequently redirected the narrative to the UN’s commitment to eliminating cholera from the country and strengthening Haiti’s water and sanitation infrastructure (7). The UN leadership blatantly disregarded the rights of the cholera victims to pursue legal action and compensation for the hardship they suffered due to the UN’s gross negligence.
The way the UN has handled cholera in Haiti has not only been a grave miscarriage of justice but has challenged the very ethos of the organization itself.
The UN and the Haitian government signed a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) granting broad immunity to MINUSTAH for crimes committed in the country (8). SOFA dictates the establishment of a Standing Claims Commission as the procedure for victims to seek redress from harms committed in the course of peacekeeping (9). The UN’s failure to create such a commission is a breech of its own agreement and has resulted in an egregious violation of Haitians’ human rights. In fact, despite the existence of 32 SOFAs, a standing claims commission has never once been established (10).
The true reason for the UN’s unwillingness to take responsibility for its actions in Haiti lies at the heart of the defense, U.S. attorney Ellen Blain argued on behalf of the UN. She argued that the court ruling in favour of the plaintiffs would “create and open up a huge set of claims to the United Nations. Private parties around the world would be able to sue the United Nations for violations of — perceived violations and breaches of the treaty” (11). Yet it is not liability for its actions that will compromise the UN’s ability to fulfill its mandate. Rather it is the UN’s immoral and inhumane denial of the devastation they caused to innocent people that is undermining the integrity of the international body. The cholera case is only one demonstration of the human rights violations for which the UN should be held accountable, including, but not limited to, many reported cases of systemic sexual exploitation and abuse committed by peacekeepers (12).
In accordance with Article 6, Section 23 of Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations, the Secretary General has not only the right but the duty, to waive immunity in cases where it would impede “the course of justice” (13). The way the UN has handled cholera in Haiti has not only been a grave miscarriage of justice but has challenged the very ethos of the organization itself. The United Nations has undeniably proven that its bureaucratic self-protective instincts painfully outweigh those to protect and uphold the human rights of all.
Madlen Nash is a U3 microbiology and immunology student at McGill University. Her global health interests are infectious disease prevention and diagnosis in high-burden, low-resource settings and health and social justice.
Agreement Between the United Nations and the Government of Haiti Concerning the Status of the United Nations Operation in Haiti. Volume 2271, 1-40460. 261-262. Web. 15 Nov. 2014. http://www.ijdh.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/MINUSTAH-SOFA-English.pdf
Carla Ferstman. “Criminalizing Sexual Exploitation and Abuse by Peacekeepers.” Special Report 335. United States Institute for Peace. September 2013. Web 15 Nov. 2014.http://www.usip.org/sites/default/files/SR335Criminalizing%20Sexual%20Exploitatio%20and%20Abuse%20by%20Peacekeepers.pdf
Convention of the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations. 13 February 1946. 28. Web15 Nov. 2014. http://www.un.org/en/ethics/pdf/convention.pdf
Daniele Lantagne, G. Balakrish Nair, Claudio F. Lanata and Alejandro Cravioto. “Final Report of the Independent Panel of Experts on the Cholera Outbreak in Haiti.” 29-30. Web. 15 Nov 2014. http://www.un.org/News/dh/infocus/haiti/UN- cholera-report-final.pdf
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Ministère de la Santé et de la Population (MSPP). “Rapport Choléra 10 Sept 2014”. 2014. Web.15 Nov 2014. http://mspp.gouv.ht/newsite/documentation.php
Piarroux, Renaud. “Understanding the Cholera Epidemic, Haiti.” National Center for Biotechnology Information. U.S. National Library of Medicine. July 2011. Web. 15 Nov. 2014. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21762567.
United Nations Press Release. “Haiti Cholera Victims’ Compensation Claims ‘Not Receivable’ under Immunities and Privileges Convention, United Nations Tells Their Representatives.” 21 February 2013. Web. 15 Nov. 2014. http://www.un.org/press/en/2013/sgsm14828.doc.htm
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Yale Law School Transnational Development Clinic, et al. “Peacekeeping with Accountability: The United Nations’ Responsibility for the Haitian Cholera Epidemic.” 2013. 18. Web 15 Nov. 2014. http://www.law.yale.edu/documents/pdf/Clinics/Haiti_TDC_Final_Report.pdf
Yale Law School Transnational Development Clinic, et al. Peacekeeping with Accountability: The United Nations’ Responsibility for the Haitian Cholera Epidemic. 2013. 27. Web 15 Nov. 2014. http://www.law.yale.edu/documents/pdf/Clinics/Haiti_TDC_Final_Report.pdf
(1) Daniele Lantagne, G. Balakrish Nair, Claudio F. Lanata and Alejandro Cravioto. May 2013. Abstract.
(2) Ministère de la Santé et de la Population (MSPP). 2016. 1.
(3) Yale Law School Transnational Development Clinic, et al. 2013. 18.
(4) Daniele Lantagne, G. Balakrish Nair, Claudio F. Lanata and Alejandro Cravioto. 29-30.
(5) Renaud Piarroux. July 2011. Abstract.
(6) World Health Organization. February 2014.
(7) Haiti Cholera Victims’ Compensation Claims ‘Not Receivable’ under Immunities and Privileges Convention, United Nations Tells Their Representatives. February 2013.
(8) Security Council Establishes UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti for Initial Six-Month Period. April 2004.
(9) Agreement Between the United Nations and the Government of Haiti Concerning the Status of the United Nations Operation in Haiti. July 2004. 261-262.
(10) Yale Law School Transnational Development Clinic, et al. 2013. 27.
(11) Oral Argument Cholera Case. October 2014. 52.
(12) Carla Ferstman. September 2013. 1.
(13) Convention of the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations. February 1946. 28.
Helmer, Kendra. USAID. From Public Domain Images. http://www.public-domain-image.com/free-images/nature-landscapes/river/the-artibonite-river-is-the-suspected-source-of-the-cholera-outbreak-in-haiti-725×482.jpg
Tech. Sgt. James L. Harper, Jr., USAF. From WikiMedia. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/04/Aid_airdrop_over_Mirebalais_2010-01-21_3.JPG