UN faces crisis of credibility over 8,000 cholera deaths in Haiti

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL September 13, 2013

When first faced with the Syria question, the United States showed no interest in looking to the United Nations for direction. America seemed to have decided that it could do without the UN’s moral authority. Some would say that authority is ebbing and two words, in particular, have become tied to that erosion: Haiti and cholera.

Late last month, the Haitian government used two words of its own to sum up the situation. Its UN representative told the organisation that his people were suffering because of the UN’s “moral fault”.

There is indeed plenty of reason to believe that the UN unwittingly caused an outbreak of the deadly disease in Haiti. Medical evidence indicates that this happened in October 2010, six years after the arrival of Minustah, the French acronym for the UN force sent to Haiti to keep the peace after a coup there led to years of chaos and bloodshed.

UN peacekeepers from Nepal, where cholera is endemic, brought a South Asian strain of the disease to Haiti, which had remained free of it for 200 years, even when three cholera pandemics raged in the Caribbean in the 19th century.

Poorly handled human waste from the Nepalese soldiers’ UN base contaminated a tributary that flows into the Artibonite River, Haiti’s largest and one of its main sources of water.

More than 8,000 people died in the cholera outbreak, and nearly 700,000 more – or one out of every 16 Haitians – were infected.

The UN has never even accepted responsibility, and so has not said it was sorry. Nor has it agreed to compensate surviving victims or the families of the dead. Instead, the world body has promised to work towards the elimination of cholera on Hispaniola, the island Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic.

This modest, unspecific commitment is pilloried as too little, too late. The issue is being depicted as a tussle between a powerful international organisation and vulnerable people in the poorest country in the Americas.

For many, this tragedy and the handling of it call into question the UN’s claim to work for the greater common good. Last month a Yale Law School report, Peacekeeping Without Accountability, accused the UN of “violat(ing) principles of international humanitarian aid” by introducing cholera to Haiti and refusing to accept responsibility for doing so.

Mario Joseph, one of the lawyers who helped file an unsuccessful compensation claim on behalf of 5,000 cholera victims, is derisive about a two-faced UN. The organisation, he said in February, “can’t have humanity and impunity at the same time”.

This is a powerful indictment, at least in the court of public opinion, and it is damning for an organisation whose chief currency, from the day it was founded, has been international trust.

The UN must be like Caesar’s wife, pure and above suspicion. It cannot afford to metamorphose in the public mind into a cross between a machin (contraption), as Charles de Gaulle dismissively described it in the 1940s, and a Caligula-like organisation – cruel, tyrannical and self-aggrandising.

The implications are obvious. The UN replaced the flawed League of Nations because the League had shown that it could not prevent war or promote international cooperation on economic, social and humanitarian problems. Could the UN in turn undermine itself beyond redemption by offering a high-minded official commitment to human rights while appearing to ignore that concept in practice?

But the converse also bears consideration. The UN is paid for by its 193 member-states, and there is little appetite for opening it up to unlimited liability claims in every country where it operates.

Are the choices that stark? History allows for some hope. In 1965, the UN agreed to pay the governments of Belgium, Switzerland, Greece, Luxembourg and Italy for damage sustained by their nationals at the hands of its peacekeeping forces in the Congo.

Lump sum payments ranged from a high of $1.5 million (Dh5.5m) to Belgium to just $28,000 to Switzerland for damage to persons and property at the hands of the Opération des Nations Unies au Congo (Onuc). Each government was responsible for distributing the funds to eligible claimants, a list of whom was provided by the UN.

So what’s different for Haiti? Admittedly, Minustah is much smaller than Onuc was. At its peak, Onuc counted 200,000 troops and other personnel, making it one of the largest peacekeeping operations in UN history.

But the key appears to have been the involvement in negotiations of the governments of the countries of origin of the victims.

In many ways, it should be easier to claim compensation from Minustah than it was from Onuc. There has been widespread publicity about the Haitian case, and much rancour about the UN’s callousness in a country wracked by woe and practically flattened by an enormous earthquake in January of 2010.

Indeed a 13-page Status of Forces Agreement, signed between the UN and Haiti in 2004, provides for a claims commission to consider disputes “of a private law character”.

This is precisely the sort of body, lawyers say, that could address the grievances of those Haitians who lost family members or sources of livelihood or who became ill but survived after cholera so devastatingly took root in Haiti.

But provision for a claims commission has been included in 30 UN peacekeeping arrangements since 1990 – and in each case the claims commission provision has been only a meaningless aspiration.

By 1990, peacekeeping was becoming one of the UN’s key activities. Allegations of misconduct had started to surface and there was a need to define the rights, obligations and duties of both the UN and the host state.

And yet the UN has not set up a single claims commission to date and there appears to be little pressure from its “shareholders” – the world at large – to force it do so.

This is particularly shocking in light of the ballooning of peacekeeping activity. Experts describe the 22 years starting in 1956, when peacekeepers were called in 10 times, as the “first golden age of UN peacekeeping”.

Between 1990 and 1993 peacekeepers were in demand an astonishing 15 times and then after a period in disgrace (because of failures in Somalia, Rwanda and Bosnia) there was a renaissance from 2003 to 2010, with eight missions.

There is little reason to suppose demand will decrease, not least because of the “CNN effect”, the worldwide broadcast of images of suffering populations, which generates pressure on governments to “do something”.

That is why the Haitian case is particularly important. It tests the world’s resolve, squaring up the unselfish desire to do good through humanitarian missions against the unscrupulous urge to deny the human stains that can mark such efforts.