Will the UN Ever Accept Responsibility for Haiti’s Devastating Cholera Epidemic?

May 7, 2016 Updated: May 7, 2016

What happens when a humanitarian organization meant to protect people instead causes them grave harm? That has long been the question where it comes to the U.N.’s peacekeeping operations. From sexual violence to looting, from deaths caused by drink-driving to property damage, a great many individuals have been harmed by peacekeepers, and the structures to provide protection and remedy range from threadbare to non-existent.

But it’s another thing altogether when the harm done is attributable not to individual peacekeepers, but to U.N. operations in general. Two of the gravest examples of this have occurred in recent years: the Haiti cholera epidemic, and the poisoning of Roma in displaced persons camps in Kosovo.

For years, there have been fights to secure justice for both sets of victims. But while Haiti’s struggle goes on, in the Kosovan case, it looks like a major breakthrough has been made.

Haitians wash clothes in a stream in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Jan. 8, 2011. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Haitians wash clothes in a stream in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Jan. 8, 2011. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

It’s now being reported that the U.N. will apologize and provide remedies for displaced Roma people forced to live in camps built on toxic wasteland in Kosovo. The poison in the earth under those camps caused significant damage to the health of those individuals and to children born within the camps. Although the camps were demolished in 2010, individuals had been forced to live there for a decade despite repeated warnings about lead poisoning from the World Health Organization (WHO) and from various human rights groups.

But despite clear evidence of its role in what happened, the U.N. is only now potentially acknowledging responsibility, and it’s only doing so because of a non-binding opinion handed down by the Human Rights Advisory Panel, a body set up to hear civil claims against the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK).

That panel, which hears civil cases about harms caused by murders, enforced disappearances, and other serious crimes, has now urged the mission to acknowledge a “failure to comply with the applicable human rights standards in response to the adverse health condition caused by lead contamination” and to make a “public apology to them and their families.”

Whether those words will be heeded remains to be seen. But it is high time that the U.N. finds a way to take responsibility for harms caused by or attributable to its peacekeeping operations—and that obligation must not be limited to events in Kosovo.

Teens bath in the Artibonite River, believed to be the polluted source of the cholera epidemic, in St. Marc, Haiti, on Oct. 28, 2010. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Teens bath in the Artibonite River, believed to be the polluted source of the cholera epidemic, in St. Marc, Haiti, on Oct. 28, 2010. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Owning Up

There are clear parallels between what happened in Kosovo and the disaster in Haiti. As with the lead poisoning, there is strong evidence that the cholera epidemic in Haiti was attributable to the U.N. peacekeeping operation (MINUSTAH).

Nepalese peacekeepers arriving in Haiti were not screened for cholera, and the camps they lived in had inadequate sanitation facilities, allowing raw fecal matter containing cholera to flow straight into a tributary that feeds Haiti’s main river, the Artibonite. Cholera quickly spread in October 2010; it has killed thousands of people and sickened hundreds of thousands more.

Ever since the outbreak began, the U.N. has refused to acknowledge anything other than “moral responsibility,” and failed to apologize or provide remedies to the victims.

A child walks through a camp for individuals who have lost their homes in the Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake in Cite Soleil, a historically impoverished area of Port au Prince, Haiti, on Oct. 31, 2010. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
A child walks through a camp for individuals who have lost their homes in the Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake in Cite Soleil, a historically impoverished area of Port au Prince, Haiti, on Oct. 31, 2010. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Whereas the Roma in Kosovo had recourse to a civil court, albeit only once the panel was created in 2006, the Haitian cholera victims have been denied access to any similar mechanism. As such, a class action suit was filed at the New York District Court, which is now at the Appellate Court level, on behalf of 5,000 victims.

The arguments so far have focused on whether the U.N. can be brought to a national court, or whether its immunity from such courts’ jurisdiction is absolute. All the while, more than five years since the cholera outbreak began, victims have still been denied justice—and the failure to eradicate cholera means that the disease is now nearly endemic.

Doctors Without Borders' medics treat cholera patients at a hospital run by the Haitian government in St. Marc, Haiti, on Oct. 30, 2010. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Doctors Without Borders’ medics treat cholera patients at a hospital run by the Haitian government in St. Marc, Haiti, on Oct. 30, 2010. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Where the Buck Stops

The peacekeeping missions in Kosovo and Haiti have been tasked with meeting similar needs. Both missions have exercised governmental powers and taken on governmental duties. UNMIK was created in 1999, and it was the sole sovereign power in Kosovo until independence was declared in 2008; MINUSTAH was created in 2004, and at various times has been a hybrid sovereign power within the state, frequently exercising governmental functions alongside the national government of Haiti.

At the time when the affected Roma people were moved to the contaminated camps in Kosovo, and for at least eight of the years that they were forced to continue living there, the U.N. was the country’s sole authority and power.

Hospital workers burn medical waste behind a hospital that is treating cholera patients in St. Marc, Haiti. Haiti, on Oct. 30, 2010. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Hospital workers burn medical waste behind a hospital that is treating cholera patients in St. Marc, Haiti. Haiti, on Oct. 30, 2010. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

And at the time of the cholera outbreak in Haiti, which began shortly after the 2010 earthquake, the U.N. was fulfilling many governmental functions there, since the national infrastructure had all but collapsed. Authority and control may have nominally belonged to the government, but in practice it rested with the U.N. and MINUSTAH.

This question of who was actually exercising sovereign powers is crucial. That the U.N. was in control means it does bear responsibility for the harms that occurred on its watch.

A young girl waits outside during the distribution of cholera protection kits by the French NGO Acted in Dubuisson, Haiti, on Oct. 30, 2010. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
A young girl waits outside during the distribution of cholera protection kits by the French NGO Acted in Dubuisson, Haiti, on Oct. 30, 2010. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Where the U.N., acting externally and fulfilling the role of a government within a state, causes or allows harms to the local population, it must be held to account—in much the same way that we expect national governments to accept responsibility and provide remedies when they harm their people.

Rosa Freedman is a senior lecturer of law at the University of Birmingham in the U.K. Nicolas Lemay-Hébert is a senior lecturer at the international development department, University of Birmingham. This article was originally published on The Conversation.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Rosa Freedman
Rosa Freedman