On anniversary, UN pressed about liability for Haiti cholera

Ayee Macaraig
On UN Day, journalists and a lawyer say the UN must accept accountability for bringing cholera to Haiti by compensating the victims of the outbreak

'DAMAGING ISSUE.' Al Jazeera's Sebastian Walker, lawyer Beatrice Lindstrom, and AP's former Haiti correspondent Jonathan Katz say the UN must be held liable for supposedly bringing cholera to Haiti. Photo by Ayee Macaraig/Rappler

UNITED NATIONS – The United Nations is marking its 69th anniversary with Ban Ki-Moon urging governments to pursue “the common good,” and a concert featuring pianist Lang Lang and Sting.

Yet before the UN Day festivities, a lawyer and journalists urged the UN to face accountability for an issue it has refused to discuss at length: allegedly bringing cholera to Haiti. Over 8,500 people died in the outbreak, and 700,000 infected.  

“The fact that it’s the UN, that has an alarming, chilling effect even on human rights organizations. There’s a lot of questions [like], ‘Who is this crazy NGO suing the United Nations,’” said human rights lawyer Beatrice Lindstrom of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti.

Lindstrom was one of the panelists in the discussion at the UN Correspondents Association room on Friday, October 24, held at the UN headquarters in New York.

The briefing came a day after a US federal district court in New York held a rare hearing on the case, which claims that UN peacekeepers from Nepal brought the cholera to Haiti while the Caribbean nation was still reeling from the 2010 earthquake.

The UN did not appear in the hearing, but the US argued on its behalf as the host nation. The US lawyer said that if the lawsuit proceeds, it would open the UN to many other claims from private parties around the world. 

An independent panel that the UN appointed found that the peacekeepers “were the most likely source of introduction of cholera into Haiti.” The cholera allegedly spread when sewage from the UN peacekeeping base leaked into the Artibonite River, a main water source for Haitians. 

The plaintiffs claim the UN was negligent in testing the peacekeepers for cholera, and in handling the base’s sewage. UN though has made no admission of liability or any apology. It claims immunity from suit. 

Lindstrom, who argued on behalf of the Haitian cholera victims, said it is unusual for courts to even grant a hearing to determine whether or not the UN has immunity.

She said her group’s argument is that under Section 29 of the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the UN, the world body should provide compensation or settlement in cases of personal injury and death that “arise in the peacekeeping context.” She called the Haiti cholera outbreak a “prototypical” example.

“We think the case is different… It raises a new legal question: you have this document, contract between the UN and member states. The UN says, ‘We get to have immunity from all courts. In exchange, we will make sure citizens injured have somewhere to go.’ That has been broken,” said Lindstrom. 

Journalist Jonathan Katz, former Haiti correspondent of the Associated Press (AP), said the UN has refused to address the issue since he first began investigating it. Katz is the author of the book The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster, one chapter of which discussed the cholera outbreak. 

“My analysis of the UN and US response has been less of a reaction to the legal process but more of an allergy to the issue of settlement,” Katz said. “Since November, December 2010, we’ve known what happened. There had been many opportunities for the UN to come forward to make it right.”

At a regular press briefing held shortly after the discussion, UN Deputy Spokesperson Farhan Haq said he had no further statement on the case.

“I can confirm there was a hearing yesterday. In light of its immunity, the UN did not appear in court. The US asserted the position that [the UN] officials are immune,” Haq said.

‘Stonewalled at every phase’

Before the panel discussion began, Al Jazeera’s “Fault Lines” screened its documentary Haiti in a Time of Cholera that showed the network’s investigation of the case, and several UN officials including Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon refusing to answer questions on the issue.

Al Jazeera Correspondent Sebastian Walker said that trying to get answers from UN officials from Haiti to New York was frustrating.

“We feel it’s a very urgent issue the UN has to deal with. It was very difficult for us to get any kind of response about the decision made impacting thousands of families in Haiti.”

Lindstrom said the lawyers representing the Haitian victims had the same experience in seeking a meeting with the UN’s legal department. Before going to court, her group got a response from the world body that the claims it filed were “not receivable.”

“We’ve tried to pursue this privately and we’ve been stonewalled at every phase …. They said, ‘We don’t see a need for a meeting. There was no obligation for one.’ Our request was declined.”

AP’s Katz compared the gravity of the Haiti cholera outbreak with Ebola, a disease that the UN is actively striving to respond to.

“The death toll from the Haiti cholera was twice than that in the Ebola outbreak. Cholera in Haiti – because it was an imported disease, there has never been a single documented case of any cholera in the entire Haiti – it really did have an effect reminiscent of what [Doctors Without Borders] is reporting in West Africa: destroying infrastructure, and changing the way people live,” Katz said.

‘Significant support’

For now, Lindstrom said that her group is focused on the lawsuit but is not ruling out filing a case before European courts. She said that European courts balance immunity with the right to access.

Despite the obstacles, the 3 panelists said even some officials within the UN privately expressed their disagreement with how the organization is handling the case.

Lindstrom cited former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay as among those who publicly called for compensation for the victims.

“There is significant support within the UN. I believe a lot of people are pushing for this,” Lindstrom said.  

Whether or not the UN changes its policy, Al Jazeera’s Walker said the Haitians he interviewed had no expectations of a positive response whatsoever.

“That’s very symbolic of the attitude that existed on the ground. It’s so damaging, falling into the same patterns of disappointment. It’s incredibly damaging for the image of the UN, not just coming through with compensation and an apology, but being so non-transparent, unengaged.” – Rappler.com

Rappler multimedia reporter Ayee Macaraig is a 2014 fellow of the Dag Hammarskjöld Fund for Journalists. She is in New York to cover the UN General Assembly, foreign policy, diplomacy, and world events.  

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