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Rights and wrongs

Five years after Haiti quake, a new setback for cholera victims

Still waiting. EPA/Orlando Barria

January 12 2015 marks five years since Haiti was hit by a devastating earthquake. Countless victims were killed, homes destroyed, and vital infrastructure reduced to debris.

Already one of the world’s poorest and most fragile countries, Haiti was particularly vulnerable to the effects of a major natural disaster. But perhaps the most deadly and destructive event that year was the introduction of cholera into Haiti for the first time in over a century.

Within the first 30 days after the earthquake, Haitian authorities recorded almost 2,000 deaths from cholera, and things rapidly spiralled out of control. To date, more than 720,000 people in Haiti have contracted cholera, and at least 8,700 people have died of it since 2010.

Attempts to clean up the disease have fared poorly, and cholera rates have spiked again in recent months, with 100 deaths recorded in November 2014.

And of course, it was not the earthquake that brought cholera into Haiti – it was the United Nations.


The UN failed to screen its peacekeepers for cholera before they arrived in Haiti. It then failed to provide adequate sanitation at one of its peacekeeping camps, which allowed cholera-infected raw sewage to flow directly into a tributary of the Artibonite, Haiti’s main river.

On top of that negligence, the UN has failed to contain the disease, let alone eradicate it. It is estimated that US$2.2 billion dollars is required to stamp cholera out, but so far only US$50m has been pledged specifically for the anti-cholera effort.

The UN refuses to accept any responsibility for the cholera epidemic. It has formally declined to award compensation to individuals affected by cholera. The UN does not dispute that its peacekeepers brought cholera into Haiti, nor does it seek to absolve itself of blame for the conditions within the peacekeepers’ camp – but it has repeatedly refused to provide compensation to victims.

The Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) has worked tirelessly to secure remedies for those victims and to pressure the UN into fulfilling its commitment to contain and eradicate cholera. Those efforts included an attempt to bring the UN before a New York court in order to file claims on behalf of cholera victims.

The UN relied on its immunity from national courts and refused to acknowledge that the court case was taking place. That immunity is based on Article 105(1) of the Charter of the United Nations and on Section 2 of the Convention on Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations (CPIUN). But that clashes with the international legal principle that individuals have fundamental rights to access a court.

The legal team trying to sue the UN outside a New York courthouse. EPA/Justin Lane

Mechanisms to resolve this impasse do exist. Section 29 of the CPIUN and the Model Status of Forces Agreement both require the UN to set up local claims boards within any peacekeeping operation. They allow individuals to realise their rights in spite of the UN’s absolute immunity.

Despite this, the cholera victims from Haiti are still being denied alternative avenues for resolving their dispute, and that is a violation of their fundamental rights.

European courts and many legal scholars and academics supported the IJDH’s argument that UN immunity could not be upheld where doing so would violate fundamental human rights. Those rights bind the UN and its member states. But the UN refused to respond to the lawsuit and to those arguments, and instead relied on the US Government to seek dismissal on its behalf.

In the end, only days before the five-year anniversary, the New York District Court ruled that the UN is immune from its jurisdiction. The victims’ rights continue to be violated.


Human rights are central to all UN activities. UN bodies develop, promote and protect human rights around the world; member states are meant to look to the UN for direction and leadership on all human rights issues. But as Stephen Lewis, former UN special envoy for HIV/AIDS and former deputy director of UNICEF, said in a recent speech:

In the case of Haiti and cholera, the United Nations has abandoned human rights, has spurned the rule of law, and has rendered democratic principles a travesty.

By invoking its absolute immunity, the UN is either forgetting or ignoring the simple fact that all individuals, wherever they are in the world, have rights to access a court and a legal remedy. UN absolute immunity, and its refusal to hear those claims within its own tribunals, is denying the Haitian victims those rights.

Now the court has handed down its judgment, the UN will probably continue to abuse the rights of Haiti’s cholera victims. The outlook that spells for the institution’s defence of human rights around the world is bleak indeed.

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