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Do As We Say, Not As We Do: The Haitian Cholera Epidemic and the Moral Legitimacy of the United Nations

This post was co-authored by Adam Houston, a global health and human rights specialist working with the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti.

Last week, researchers from Yale University added their voice to the growing chorus calling upon the United Nations (UN) to respond fairly and justly to the cholera epidemic it recklessly caused in Haiti in 2010. The report comes on the heels of an article written by the scientists appointed by the UN to investigate the source of the epidemic, which concludes that "the preponderance of the evidence... does lead to the conclusion that personnel associated with [a UN peacekeeping base] were the most likely source of introduction of cholera into Haiti."

These two documents, and the widespread international coverage they have received, bolster a broad, informal network of scientists, lawyers, human rights activists, grassroots leaders, victims groups, and government officials calling upon the UN - the organization founded with the purpose of promoting justice and human rights around the world - to practice what it preaches in Haiti. As yet, however, the UN continues to turn a deaf ear to these calls, to the detriment of both Haiti and the organization itself.

Cholera, a water-borne disease that can kill in a matter of hours, was introduced into Haiti via untreated human waste that leaked from a UN peacekeeping base into the river that serves as the water source for tens of thousands of Haitians. Since then, it has spread to all ten departments of the country. Over 8000 Haitians have died and more than 650,000 have fallen ill since October 2010; the total number of cholera cases in Haiti has now surpassed the combined number of cases of the rest of the world.

Despite conclusive evidence that the epidemic originated at the UN camp, the UN has refused to accept responsibility. In February 2013, after a 15-month silence, the UN tersely refused to hear claims submitted by 5,000 victims, disregarding legal obligations to compensate for injuries it causes. The UN's excuse, that the claims were not receivable because they implicate policy matters, has drawn outrage over what many view as an attempt to sidestep their obligations, and raised questions as to how improper sewage disposal could be considered a policy. The UN's mishandling of the cholera situation has unraveled to a point where, as the Yale report puts it, "the United Nations violates the very principles of accountability and respect for law that it promotes worldwide."

One such principle is the fundamental tenet of the rule of law that victims of injury or death caused by the wrongdoing of another should have recourse before a fair tribunal. The UN has committed to this principle; indeed, in exchange for the immunity from domestic legal action that the UN enjoys, the organization has promised in its Status of Forces Agreement with the Haitian government that it will establish a standing claims commission to hear claims that would otherwise be brought before a Haitian court. Haiti is only the latest, albeit perhaps largest, illustration of the fact that the UN has never, throughout the entire history of its peacekeeping operations, established such a commission. The result, as the Yale report notes, is that "a meaningful mechanism to ensure peacekeeper accountability has been rendered a nullity." It concludes that "[b]y causing the epidemic and then refusing to provide redress to those affected, the U.N. has breached its commitments to the Government of Haiti, its obligations under international law, and principles of humanitarian relief."

For the victims of the epidemic, the consequences are real and devastating. For those who have had to pull children out of school or are struggling to put food on the table after losing the family's sole breadwinner, the denial of justice means suffering an egregious wrong without having anywhere to turn to make it right. And critically, it means receiving a clear message that when the UN says it promotes "human rights for all," it doesn't include them.

And while the UN has argued that meeting their liabilities for the cholera epidemic could set a precedent that would be too costly and undermine future missions, the repercussions of avoiding responsibility are far greater. For an organization that depends on moral credibility to push its mission of promoting human rights for all, the implications of ignoring its own values are severe and far-reaching. It means that the next time the UN tries to spread its message, people may simply stop listening.

An Italian translation of this article appeared in Il Fatto Mondo on August 16, 2013: http://www.ilfattoquotidiano.it/2013/08/16/te-la-do-io-lonu16-i-costi-troppo-alti-del-colera-ad-haiti/685454/