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.
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.