Victims of the 2010 cholera outbreak in Haiti, which killed at least 40,000 people and infected hundreds of thousands more, are petitioning the US supreme court on Tuesday to hold the UN accountable for having brought the disease to the stricken country.
The nine supreme court justices will meet in conference to discuss whether to hear Laventure v UN as one of their cases of the new term. The petition goes to the heart of the question: should the world body be answerable in domestic courts for the harm it causes people it is there to serve?
Today, the UN ends its 15-year long peacekeeping presence in Haiti.
Ostensibly sent to reinforce security, build rule of law and promote human rights, UN peacekeepers leave a more problematic legacy, marred by human rights violations. Notably, this week's drawdown comes nine years after peacekeepers sparked one of the deadliest cholera epidemics of modern times in the country.
The organization's ongoing failure to remedy these harms - not only from cholera but also peacekeeper sexual abuse and other violence towards civilians - has deeply undermined its legitimacy in Haiti. It also risks crippling the UN's proposed new 30-member political mission, due to begin tomorrow and charged with promoting political stability and good governance in the context of a growing political stalemate and human rights crisis in Haiti.
The UN has admitted that cholera was introduced to Haiti by peacekeepers in 2010 after about 1,000 troops were redeployed from Nepal to help in emergency work following a devastating earthquake. Basic health measures that could have been taken to prevent the transfer of the disease at the cost to the UN of only $2,000 were not taken, and instead, raw sewage from the peacekeepers’ camps was dumped directly into rivers from which thousands of Haitians routinely drew water for cooking and drinking.
A leaked report carried out by the UN itself a month after the initial outbreak of cholera found serious sanitation flaws in the Haiti peacekeeping mission. Yet for six years the world body continued to deny it had anything to do with the health catastrophe.
Crucially, the UN continues to reject any requests for compensation from the hundreds of thousands of Haitian victims. It insists that it has total immunity from such claims relating to the harmful impact caused by its staff carrying out routine business.
UN's own expert calls its actions over Haiti cholera outbreak 'a disgrace'
Now the US supreme court is being asked to consider the issue, and specifically whether the UN should be liable for the cholera disaster through domestic American courts. The issue is highly sensitive within the US, given that the UN is headquartered in New York where the annual general assembly session has just been held and given a large number of Haitians who live in America.
The latest official figures, widely assumed to be understatements, put the number of dead in Haiti from cholera is over 40,000 with a total of 819,995 suspected cases.
June 2004, for the first time in history, the UN deployed a peacekeeping mission under Chapter VII of the UN Charter - authorizing the use of force - without an active conflict or peace agreement to enforce, by declaring the political and humanitarian crisis in Haiti a threat to international peace and security. Since its arrival, following a coup that forced out former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the UN Stabilisation Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) has been considered by many Haitians to be an affront to sovereignty.
MINUSTAH's credibility was further eroded by its peacekeepers' implication in human rights violations. Early in its mission, in a raid targeting criminal gangs, MINUSTAH peacekeepers fired over 22,000 bullets into the thin-walled houses of Haiti's Cite Soleil neighborhood, killing more than 20 women and children. Neither MINUSTAH nor the Haitian police investigated the event. Moreover, despite a "zero tolerance" policy, MINUSTAH personnel engaged in widespread sexual exploitation and abuse of women and children, with perpetrators generally returning home without prosecution or accountability. In 2015, Haiti had one of the highest rates of sexual abuse and exploitation of any peacekeeping mission in the world.
Perhaps most damningly, the UN took more than five years to publicly admit a role in Haiti's devastating cholera epidemic, which has claimed over 40,000 lives and infected more than 900,000 people since 2010, despite numerous scientific studies from 2011 onwards establishing that the disease was introduced as a result of reckless disposal of human waste from a MINUSTAH base. By its own admission, this response left "a blemish on the reputation of UN peacekeeping and the organization worldwide".
It is no coincidence that MINUSTAH, which cost more than $7bn, and its smaller successor force, the UN Mission for Justice Support in Haiti (MINUJUSTH), which wraps up today, had limited success in promoting the rule of law, and remained a point of controversy in the country throughout their mandates. In Haiti, the UN logo has come to symbolize impunity and abuse. Unsurprisingly many Haitians hold a negative perception of UN peacekeeping.
For the Haitian government, this makes it all too easy to ignore legitimate UN engagement. When, in February 2018, MINUJUSTH publicly supported judicial investigations into Haitian government corruption and excessive use of force by the national police, the foreign ministry reacted by pointing to cholera as evidence of the organization's double standards. MINUJUSTH's head was recalled and the mission remained largely silent on human rights from then on.
For the UN's new political mission, concretely addressing this legitimacy deficit must be a priority.
As Haiti marks nine years since the beginning of the cholera epidemic this week, the UN continues to deny legal responsibility for the outbreak and refuses to compensate victims calling for justice. The organization has raised less than 5 percent of the $400m the UN promised almost three years ago for a new plan intended to eliminate cholera and provide material assistance to those most affected, and in the absence of promised investments in water and sanitation infrastructure, cholera remains an ongoing risk in Haiti.
The UN has likewise ignored advocates' demands for a transparent investigation into the killings in Cite Soleil and has made it nearly impossible for victims of sexual exploitation and abuse to obtain even modest support through child support claims, refusing to share key evidence or certify that peacekeepers do not have immunity. A more accountable UN response to each of these issues is both possible and necessary.
The new UN mission will open this week amid a political stalemate that is paralyzing Haiti and presents a crossroads for the country's future. Over the past year, tens of thousands of Haitians have mobilized to call for accountability, structural reform and the resignation of President Jovenel Moise, over his implication in corruption and what the population sees as a failure to manage deteriorating governance, economic, social and human rights situation.
Currently, Moise is unable to secure parliamentary approval for the formation of a government. Haiti is operating without a national budget, and it is logistically impossible to hold parliamentary elections scheduled for this month. For the UN office - which does not even have a defined work plan, or a special representative to lead it - to operate effectively to promote political stability in these circumstances would be difficult at best. To think that it can do so without taking meaningful steps to repair UN peacekeeping's damaged legitimacy in Haiti is unrealistic.