Normative Narratives


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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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Transparency Watch: Who Will Hold the UN Accountable?

Haiti is one of the worlds poorest countries, both in terms of GDP per capita (adjusted for standard of living expense, 2012 PPP GDP per capita is estimated at $1,242) and HDI (0.456, 161st out of 187 countries and the lowest in the Western Hemisphere). Any other measure of well-being will turn out similarly dismal results. It is therefore unsurprising that Haiti is the target of many international and multilateral aid campaigns, aimed at increasing the standard of living for Haitians. However, even the most well intended campaigns can have unintended negative consequences, and those responsible must be held accountable.

Original article:

Advocates for Haitian victims of the deadly cholera epidemic that first afflicted their country three years ago said they were taking the extraordinary step on Wednesday of suing the United Nations, asserting that the organization’s peacekeeping force in Haiti was responsible for introducing the disease through sewage contamination from its barracks.

The lawsuit, which the advocates said they would file in Federal District Court in Manhattan on Wednesday morning, will be the strongest action they have taken in pressing the United Nations to acknowledge at least some culpability for the outbreak of cholera, a highly contagious scourge spread through human feces that had been largely absent from Haiti for 100 years.

Cholera has killed more than 8,300 Haitians and sickened more than 650,000 in the earthquake-ravaged country, the poorest in the Western Hemisphere, since it first reappeared in October 2010. While the worst of the epidemic has eased, it still kills about 1,000 Haitians a year.

United Nations officials have said they are committed to eradicating the cholera, but they have not conceded that the organization was inadvertently responsible for causing it. They also have asserted diplomatic immunity from any negligence claims, a position that has deeply angered many Haitians who consider it a betrayal of United Nations principles.

Haitian leaders, while dependent on the United Nations to help maintain stability and provide other important services, have also expressed unhappiness over the cholera issue. In an address last Thursday at the annual United Nations General Assembly opening session, Haiti’s prime minister, Laurent Lamothe, spoke of what he called the “moral responsibility” of the United Nations in the outbreak, and said the efforts to combat it had been far from sufficient.

Forensic studies, including one ordered by the United Nations, have identified the culprit bacteria as an Asian strain imported to Haiti by Nepalese members of the United Nations peacekeeping force, known as the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti, which was first authorized in 2004 and maintains about 8,700 soldiers and police officers there, drawn from more than three dozen member states. The forensic studies have also linked the spread of the cholera to a flawed sanitation system at the Nepalese peacekeeper base, which contaminated a tributary that feeds Haiti’s largest river, used by Haitians for drinking and bathing.

It was far from clear that the lawsuit would be accepted by the court, which affords broad latitude to diplomatic protections for the United Nations against such litigation. These protections are partly rooted in the formal legal conventions created with the inception of the United Nations after World War II. “The majority view is that the U.N. and U.N. entities are immune from domestic lawsuits,” said Jordan J. Paust, a professor of international law at the Law Center of the University of Houston.

Eight months ago, Ban Ki-moon, the secretary general of the United Nations, informed Haitian leaders that it would not accept claims for compensation made by victims of the outbreak, citing a provision of the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations.

Ms. Lindstrom said the United Nations had also rebuffed her group’s attempts to address the issue. “They’ve refused to sit down for a conversation with the victims, or with us,” she said.

Navi Pillay, the top human rights official at the United Nations, suggested on Tuesday from her headquarters in Geneva that Haiti’s cholera victims were entitled to some compensation, although she did not specify who should provide it.

I am generally very supportive of the United Nations; despite widespread cynicism about the efficacy of international development efforts, I believe the United Nations has played an integral part in establishing / maintaining peace in conflict regions and empowering the worlds most impoverished marginalized since its inception. However, all these positive elements does not exonerate the UN from being held accountable for it’s transgressions.

During my time interning with the UNDP, I was given an assignment to assess survey responses  received from countries with a UNDP country office. While the responses were overwhelmingly positive, there were some caveats. On questions relating to the UNDP’s transparency / accountability / inclusiveness / respect for countries self-determination, little over half of the responses were positive. I noted that since the UNDP was advocating for precisely these aspects in domestic politics, it should lead by example and make it a point to champion these qualities in its day to day activities. Failure to do so, I argued, was hypocritical, paternalistic, and ultimately undermined the UNDPs credibility.

I have written about the Post-2015 development agenda a number of times. At its heart is a human rights based approach to development, with international human rights law spelling out “who will be accountable” for various human rights obligations / violations. In addition, the UN has gone to great lengths to make develop the Post-2015 agenda in an inclusive and consultative manner. As someone that has seen firsthand all the lessons learned from MDG’s shortcomings and hard work that has gone into the Post-2015 agenda, I am cautiously optimistic that the Post-2015 development goals will have a significant positive impact on the worlds most impoverished.

People often talk about the UN losing influence due to it’s inability to enforce its security rules; however the UN has difficulty enforcing it’s norms on these issues, as there is a layer of national sovereignty preventing full implementation of UN principles. The Haitian case is different, the only thing holding the UN back from championing it’s own principles is the UN itself.

The UN’s strength, in my opinion, comes not from influence on security decisions. Rather it is it’s function as a forum for voicing grievances and it’s technical expertise accumulated over decades of employing development experts , alongside it’s country-level presence, that makes the United Nations an integral part of the international community. 

However, failure of the UN to be held accountable for its role in spreading cholera in Haiti could undermine support for the Post-2015 development agenda. Who is the UN to demand accountability from a wide variety of actors (government, business, civil society), when they themselves are not accountable for their own human rights violations (they may ask)? Even if the UN is not legally accountable to the Haitian people, Haiti’s prime minister is right to invoke the idea of the UN’s “moral responsibility”.

OHCHR Chief Navi Pillay understands the importance of accountability and leading by example, and I commend her for coming out and saying the UN should be held accountable for it’s role in the Cholera outbreak in Haiti, especially given (her boss) Secretary General Ban’s unwillingness to even meet with victims and/or their representatives.

It would be nice if the UN realized the importance of it’s own accountability, and settled outside of court. If this does not occur, it will be up to some court to hold the UN legally accountable.