United in immunity: UN in the dock over Haiti cholera outbreak

FRANCE 24 | Plaintiffs attend a meeting in Port-au-Prince to discuss their case against the UN.

Four years into the world’s worst ever cholera epidemic, Haitians are still seeking compensation from the United Nations, whose own experts have said it is “most likely” to blame for the deadly outbreak.


The epidemic has killed more than 8,500 people in the impoverished Caribbean nation, and is continuing to claim victims -- some 300 people are diagnosed with the disease each week, one of which, on average, will die.

Dozens of epidemiologists -- including those appointed by the UN itself -- have identified UN Nepalese peacekeepers stationed in central Haiti as the "most likely source of the outbreak". 

But with international health concerns now consumed by the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, thousands of families seeking amends worry that the UN will escape scrutiny for what lawyers describe as “gross reckless negligence”.

Three federal class action lawsuits, representing thousands of affected Haitian families, have been filed against the UN in the US. In 2013, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the UN would not compensate any of the victims, citing a convention laid down in 1946.

In March this year, the US Justice Department sided with the UN, granting it immunity and recommending that the case be dropped.

But in a possible show of sympathy for the plaintiffs, a New York judge on Wednesday agreed to hold an oral hearing on October 23 for one of the suits (Georges vs. UN), addressing juridical questions and, critically, the immunity of the UN.

UN silence

One of those facing scrutiny is Edmond Mulet, who led the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) at the time of the outbreak. Mulet has stringently disregarded the claims against him. In an interview with FRANCE 24, he dismissed all evidence incriminating the UN.

Mulet said that “it has not been proven [that cholera was most probably brought in by Nepalese peacekeepers]”.

He also asserted that Nepalese peacekeepers had undergone the appropriate medical examinations ahead of their mission to Haiti, a claim contradicted by a UN-appointed panel of experts.

Shortly after the interview, Mulet’s press officer asked FRANCE 24 not to air the recording (we did, it’s in the report above).

Ban Ki-moon has also ignored requests for transparency on the issue. During a two-day trip to Haiti in July, FRANCE 24 challenged the secretary-general several times. Stressing that he was in the country “to bring a sense of hope and support,” Ban refused to answer questions concerning any potential apology or compensation to families of victims.

Haitians protest Ban Ki-moon’s visit to Port-au-Prince in July. Image © FRANCE 24.
Haitians protest Ban Ki-moon’s visit to Port-au-Prince in July. Image © FRANCE 24.

He was pictured meeting smiling locals and at dinner with Haitian President Michel Martelly and Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe. But beyond Ban’s security corps, a few dozen protesters gathered in the street holding banners, in both English and Korean, reading “Ban Ki-moon go home,” and “justice for the victims of cholera”.

Not everybody at the UN got the silence memo. Gustavo Gallon, a senior human rights expert who was appointed by the UN to report on the situation in Haiti, publicly disagreed with the body over its refusal to address the claims against it. “Silence is the worst of responses to a catastrophe caused by human action,” he said in March.

The secretary-general did not respond.

Penance by proxy

The UN has not ignored the epidemic itself. In December 2012, Ban pledged $2.2 billion to efforts to wipe out cholera in Haiti through improved sanitation, one percent of which would come directly from the world body.

Pedro Medrano Rojas, the UN’s senior coordinator for the cholera response in Haiti, suggested in an interview with FRANCE 24 in March this year that Ban’s “cholera implementation plan” and the UN’s attempts to gather funding for it was in fact a direct response to the thousands of legal complaints.

“It is important to remember that we are operating within a legal framework approved by the international community,” Medrano Rojas said in defence of the organisation’s immunity from prosecution.


Instead, he added, the UN has responded by “trying to convince the international community that now is the time to stop the outbreak and the transmission of this disease”.

After losing friends and family to cholera, Haitian artist Monvelyno wrote a song about the crisis. The lyrics directly target the United Nations: “January 12 brought us pain and death. We should've been able to mourn and cry. But everything got worse. The UN takes our land and pays us with tombs. After the earthquake came Nepal' s cholera on Quisqueya [the indigenous name for Haiti].”

Speaking in Little Haiti in Brooklyn, Monvelyno told FRANCE 24: “You cannot resurrect the people that died but you can at least go to the family and to say it wasn’t intentional and we feel sorry for what happened -- anything that the UN can do would show that they’re sorry.”

But the UN has failed in almost two years to gather more than 12 percent of the funding needed for just one year. In July this year, Ban was forced to make the same pledge of $2.2 billion, dressing it up with a new name -- the “Total Sanitation Campaign”.

Immunity questionable

Wednesday’s decision by US District Judge J. Paul Oetken signals a heartening shift in the dispute, which was largely expected to go nowhere.

Columbia law professor Bruce Rashkow, who worked as a top-ranking lawyer for the UN for 10 years, explained to FRANCE 24 why the UN’s immunity in this case is debatable.

“Under section 29 [of the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations(CPIUN)], the United Nations is obligated to establish some modality for plaintiffs, for people injured, to seek redress against the United Nations,” he said.

Rashkow finds it unlikely, however, that the court will rule in the plaintiffs’ favour. “I suspect the court will rule that the UN has immunity,” he said. While such a ruling would serve as a devastating blow to the thousands of Haitians who have lost family members and livelihoods, Rashkow hopes that the situation would “prompt the judge to express some criticism of the positions taken by the UN”.

Like many, Rashkow believes the UN acted irresponsibly. “The United Nations is supposed to be the ideal for how we deal with each other and how states deal with their citizens and how the UN deals with citizens and people around the world,” he said. “Its refusal to accept responsibility is scandalous.”

Were the court to rule in the plaintiffs’ favour and go on to see the UN prosecuted, the world body would face hundreds of dollars in damages.

“So what?” said Rashkow. “You have to step up to the plate and deal with your responsibility.”

Lucrative crisis

One of the lawyers representing Haitian victims is Mario Joseph, who is handling some 5,000 cases. Joseph, who drives in a bulletproof car because of death threats over his human rights work, took our reporters to visit the UN base where the outbreak is said to have started.

Joseph says the UN has gone to great lengths to cover up alleged wrongdoing by diverting the Meye river from where it used to flow next to the wall of the base.

“The contractor didn’t treat the fecal matter properly. They dumped the faeces in a hole which was not covered,” he said. “When it rained, fecal matter would overflow into the river.”

The contractor is Haiti’s most lucrative sanitation service, Sanco. After the cholera outbreak and the revelations that followed, the US Department of Defense stopped working with Sanco. The United Nations, however, chose not to cut ties with the company. Instead, the UN has awarded Sanco millions of dollars’ worth of contracts over the past four years, including the construction of medical buildings which are undoubtedly used... to treat cholera patients.

Sanco, whose tagline is “Fighting for a clean environment,” declined to speak to FRANCE 24.

To understand how bad sanitation is in Haiti, we followed a waste disposal team. This man is lowered into a cesspool and has to spoon out waste with his bare hands. “Sometimes you can be submerged right up to your neck in faeces," his colleague said. Image © FRANCE 24.
To understand how bad sanitation is in Haiti, we followed a waste disposal team. This man is lowered into a cesspool and has to spoon out waste with his bare hands. “Sometimes you can be submerged right up to your neck in faeces," his colleague said. Image © FRANCE 24.

The improper disposal of faeces was only the second part of a catastrophic process. The UN has also been blamed for failing to screen peacekeepers (who were sent to quell post-earthquake unrest) from Nepal, where a cholera epidemic was underway.

Before September 2010, cholera had not existed in Haiti for more than 150 years. Only days after the arrival of Nepalese peacekeepers, a 28-year-old local was found dead after drinking river water downstream from the site.

“The UN, not intentionally but with the greatest level of negligence, gross reckless negligence, inflicted a disease on the people of Haiti when they were already suffering so much,” Joseph said.

Epidemic not over

One of those seeking compensation is Lizette Paul, who has lost eight family members to cholera, including her father, her brother and her 18-month-old baby. Gravestones at the entrance to her village mark the spot where she lost her daughter, who died on the way to the hospital.

Lizette Paul lost eight of her family members to cholera. She is one of the plaintiffs in the Georges vs. UN suit which will be heard in New York on October 23. Image © FRANCE 24.
Lizette Paul lost eight of her family members to cholera. She is one of the plaintiffs in the Georges vs. UN suit which will be heard in New York on October 23. Image © FRANCE 24.

The absence of breadwinners as a result of the deaths has left the family destitute. “We don’t even have enough money to feed ourselves… We can’t afford to send the children to school,” Paul told FRANCE 24. The children in the family who survived, she said, “are also victims of cholera”.

Like Paul and her family, the majority of Haitians live on the equivalent of less than one US dollar a day.

Haiti, which was the first country in the world to buy itself out of slavery, is today the least developed nation on the American continent. It ranks 168th on the Human Development Index, narrowly beating Afghanistan but falling behind Syria and Sudan.

With dismal interest in funding the UN’s $2.2bn sanitation programme, the plan remains a gesture. Haiti relies on the very same substandard sanitation system that allowed cholera to reach some 700,000 people, or one of every 16 in the country.

Daniele Lantagne, an environmental engineer at Tufts University and one of the UN-appointed researchers who matched the Haitian cholera strain with that of the outbreak in Nepal, is concerned that while the contagion rate has slowed in recent years, the country risks a second round of mass contagion while the international health focus is turned to Ebola.

The current lull in deaths caused by cholera might be explained by partial immunity, which occurs when a disease is rampant, she told FRANCE 24. That period of respite, she said, will last for two to three years. “After that, however,… there could be another surge.”

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