Normative Narratives

Transparency Report: Keeping Pressure on the UN to ‘Do The Right Thing’ With Respect To Haiti’s Cholera Victims

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Last October, I wrote a blog about the UN’s role in bringing Cholera to Haiti, subsequent steps to avoid accountability, and the impact this might have on the Post-2015 Development Agenda. Little had changed on this front until earlier this week:

This week Georges, one of five Haitian and Haitian-American plaintiffs named in the case, may be one step closer to being granted his day in court. Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) lawyers will get their chance on Thursday to argue that the lawsuit should go forward. It was filed in a federal court in New York a year ago, and the United Nations has declined to acknowledge it, on the grounds that the organization enjoys diplomatic immunity.

“The case is indefensible both legally and morally, from the U.N.’s perspective,” said Brian Concannon, the lead attorney at IJDH. If the judge agrees that the court has jurisdiction to hear the case, despite the U.N.’s historic immunity from prosecution, he said, that would likely mean the plaintiffs will win the case.

The IJDH’s lawyers are demanding three things: funds to fight the ongoing epidemic and clean up Haiti’s rivers (only 1% of a $2.27 billion 10-year pledge have been raised), financial compensation for victims and an apology from the United Nations. Implicit in their lawsuit, however, is the far bigger challenge, lawyers say, to the U.N.’s immunity from prosecution.

There are, however, official channels for victims of U.N. actions to seek redress. If complaints are made in the context of peacekeeping operations, the host country and the U.N. typically agree to a system for handling these claims. Despite an agreement between the U.N. and Haiti that promised victims the right to file claims for unintentional harms caused by the organization’s personnel, no such system was ever set up. (The U.N. has not offered an explanation, and a U.N. representative declined to comment for this article).

Even critics of the United Nations concede that diplomatic protections for the U.N. are, overall, a “good thing,” said IJDH’s Concannon, allowing the organization to provide alternative justice in countries where local courts do not ensure a fair trial. But he and others say the cholera case shows a U.N. too unwilling to waive its immunity. “The U.N. is currently suffering from an accountability crisis,” said Beatrice Lindstrom, another lawyer working on the case for the IDJH, “one in which they treat ‘immunity’ to mean ‘impunity.’ ”

Whatever the results of that hearing — which could take weeks, or months, to be determined — an appeal is likely. Said Lindstrom, “We’ve always understood the lawsuit to be a tool to keep public attention and pressure on the U.N. to change course and do the right thing.”

The Haitain Cholera epidemic and lackluster response remains a black cloud over the UN, as it should. The Post-2015 Development Agenda, which starting at the end of 2015 will influence the direction of national development plans and hundreds of billions in development aid, has human rights based accountability at it’s core. The Agenda calls for all actors–public, private, non-profit, etc.–to be held accountable for the human rights implications of their actions.

The UN should have owned up to it’s mistakes in the first place (“waived it’s immunity”), taking the opportunity to lead from the front and show that all actors, even the UN itself, must be held accountable in order to promote sustainable human development. Unfortunately it did not, necessitating a negative PR campaign and legal battle. Furthermore, if the lawsuit makes it to court it could set a costly legal precedent, hampering the UN’s ability to respond to crises going forward.

The UN has gone to great lengths to ensure the Post-2015 Development Agenda is inclusive, participatory, and well received by people around the world. These decisions were made in response to a perceived weakness of the preceding Millennium Development Goals; having been drafted by development professionals behind closed doors, they did not fully address many impediments to poverty eradication (specifically those related to political rights and good governance–empowering vulnerable people to become active participants in development, as opposed to passive recipients of aid).

Refusing to sit down with Haitian Cholera victims is not only a failure of justice in Haiti, it threatens to undermine support for (and therefore the efficacy of) the Post-2015 Development Agenda.

The UN is often accused of being ineffective and useless. As someone who is well versed in economic development, I know that these claims are generally made out of ignorance; there are checks in place which purposefully limit the ability of the UN to impose it’s values on a sovereign nation.

This case, however, is different–the only thing holding the UN back from championing it’s own principles is the UN itself.

It is not too late for the UN to reverse course and make this right, but an about-face on this issue does not seem to be forthcoming. As a supporter of this organization and it’s many important missions, I hope that its leadership recognizes the damage caused by its current course of action.

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