Menu Close

Will the UN ever accept responsibility for Haiti’s devastating cholera epidemic?

A medical centre for cholera victims in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. EPA/Orlando Barria

What happens when a humanitarian organisation meant to protect people instead causes them grave harm? That has long been the question where it comes to the UN’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 UN 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.

It’s now being reported that the UN will apologise 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 Organisation and from various human rights groups.

But despite clear evidence of its role in what happened, the UN 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 UN 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.

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 UN 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 faecal 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 UN has refused to acknowledge anything other than “moral responsibility”, and failed to apologise or provide remedies to the victims.

Haitians demand reparations for the cholera catastrophe. EPA/Bahare Khodabande

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 UN 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.

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 UN was the country’s sole authority and power.

And at the time of the cholera outbreak in Haiti, which began shortly after the 2010 earthquake, the UN 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 UN and MINUSTAH.

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

Where the UN, 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.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 187,100 academics and researchers from 4,998 institutions.

Register now