By Sam Bojarski

It’s been more than three years since former United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon issued a public apology for the international peacekeeping organization’s role in Haiti’s cholera outbreak. 

Haitian victims of the disease ‒ which has killed more than 10,000 and infected well over 800,000 people since its reintroduction to the country in 2010 ‒ have, in many cases, grown discouraged about the possibility for reparations.

“In Haiti right now, most people, they really don’t believe they will get reparation for what happened with the UN and cholera,” said Soeurette Michel, a Florida-based attorney who filed legal briefs on behalf of Haiti’s cholera victims, for a past lawsuit involving the UN.

Fourteen UN human rights experts criticized the lack of direct compensation and funding shortfalls for cholera victims in a joint statement to Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in April. The statement also said the UN’s “New Approach to Cholera in Haiti,” launched in 2016, has been “fundamentally inadequate.” While Guterres issued a response on June 26, human rights advocates have maintained that the secretary general still has not addressed key concerns about the cholera response that the UN’s own experts have voiced. 

A UN vehicle drives through the streets of Port-au-Prince.

The UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), which ended in October 2017, improperly disposed contaminated fecal waste into a tributary of the Artibonite River in late 2010, leading to the cholera outbreak in Haiti. Peacekeeping troops from Nepal, which was suffering its own cholera outbreak at the time, have been identified as the source of Haiti’s epidemic. 

Haitians still harbor many frustrations toward the UN, according to James Joseph, who relocated from Haiti to Brooklyn with his family in 1995. 

“Because those people, when they went to Haiti they did a lot of mischief,” said Joseph, who visits Haiti at least three times per year. He referenced the allegations of sexual abuse against UN peacekeepers in Haiti. 

“Then, they brought cholera to the country,” Joseph added. 

An apology for cholera did not come from the UN until more than six years after the outbreak.

“The UN caused the epidemic, and after denying its involvement and its role for many years, finally issued an apology and committed to what it called a New Approach. And that approach acknowledged that in addition to working on the eradication of cholera, the UN had a responsibility to make whole the victims of cholera, or at least those most affected,” said Alexandra Filippova, senior staff attorney with the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH). Since 2011, IJDH has worked to achieve justice and reparations from the UN for cholera victims. 

Launched in 2016, the New Approach consists of two components: intensifying the UN’s support to ultimately end the transmission of cholera and providing material assistance, specifically to victims and their families. Providing material assistance has been labeled as “Track 2” of the UN’s response. 

“Serious shortfalls in funding and expenditures make the UN’s promises illusory. Despite initially seeking $400 million over two years, the UN has raised a mere $20.5 million in about three years and has spent a pitiful $3.2 million. This is a deeply disappointing showing following the loss of 10,000 lives,” the UN human rights experts wrote in their April statement. 

The experts also raised concerns about the UN’s emphasis on community development projects rather than direct compensation, noting that some victims prefer monetary payments. They noted that development projects are not a replacement for direct compensation, which they labeled “a central component” of an effective remedy.

“Many of these shortcomings result from the UN’s admission of its ‘moral responsibility’ but not its legal one,” the April statement also read. 

In his June 26 response, Secretary-General Guterres touted the progress the UN has made in the fight against cholera in Haiti. 

“I am heartened to inform you that for 17 consecutive months, there has been zero laboratory confirmed cases of cholera anywhere in Haiti. Sustaining this record for an additional 19 months will result in Haiti being declared cholera-free,” he wrote. 

Guterres said the $20.6 million raised through the Multi-Partner Trust Fund (MPTF), which the human rights experts identified as $20.5 million, is only one of many funding mechanisms for ending cholera transmission. He announced plans to issue funding requests from member states for Track 2 initiatives, in support of the UN’s commitment to providing funds for cholera victims. 

He also said the UN has deployed a community support program in 25 of the hardest-hit communities. The program empowers victims “to self-direct a broader consultative process whereby they identify the priorities of the wider community of victims, design projects that respond to them, and work hand in hand with the United Nations to implement their projects,” Guterres wrote in the letter.

“While these efforts do not preclude broader support or alternative approaches if funds are made available, given the current context, we are preparing to expand this current community approach to upwards of 20 new communities in the near future. In total, we aim to target 134 of the hardest hit communities throughout Haiti, which have been identified exclusively using available epidemiological data,” the letter also read. 

A spokesperson for the UN secretary general did not return a request from The Haitian Times for further comment.

Philip Alston, who signed the April statement while serving as UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty, wrote on Twitter July 1 that the secretary general’s letter offered cholera victims “little more than platitudes” and said the secretary general did not address the previous allegations that victims have not been assisted. 

Filippova echoed the sentiments Alston expressed, saying that the second part of the UN’s “New Approach” has not happened “even though victims of cholera themselves have been very clear that they regard compensation, at least for those most affected, to be a key element of justice.” 

She compared the effort to raise money from member states to a charity fundraising drive, saying that the action represents an inadequate mechanism for providing redress to victims. Filippova further explained that if the UN were to accept its legal responsibility, it could fund its New Approach through assessed contributions – as a line item that would come out of the required contributions of each member state – instead of relying on voluntary funding.

A UN peacekeeper from Brazil stands behind the cab of a truck.

Attorneys who have represented Haiti’s cholera victims have argued that the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations, which lays out the UN’s rights and obligations to countries it serves, provides a legal mechanism for dispute resolution. 

Section 29 of the convention requires that the UN make provisions to settle disputes arising out of contracts of a private law character to which the UN is a party. 

“However in the case of Haiti, the UN did not set up any dispute resolution, they just claimed they had a moral obligation. But in terms of … compensating the victims with monetary damages, they never accept(ed) liability to do that, because they were hiding behind an immunity claim,” Michel said. 

Federal courts in the United States have dismissed two separate class-action lawsuits filed on behalf of Haitian cholera victims. Lawyers arguing on behalf of the UN have defended the organization’s immunity under its Convention on Privileges and Immunities. The lawsuits were dismissed in 2016 and 2017, respectively. The latter suit was ultimately dismissed based on jurisdictional grounds. 

In a February 2015 letter to Congress, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon justified the UN’s immunity by saying that “disputes of a private law character have been understood to be disputes of the type that arise between private parties.” 

Filippova also pointed to Article 55 of the UN’s Status of Forces agreement with the government of Haiti ‒ which provides for the settlement of disputes unrelated to the operational necessity of MINUSTAH by a standing claims commission ‒ as another legal justification for providing remedy to victims. 

Michel said she lacked confidence that the development projects pledged by the UN will have much of an impact and credited the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working on the ground in Haiti for helping to limit the spread of cholera, through educational messaging on hygiene and sanitation. 

“Right now with the pandemic in Haiti, with the coronavirus, there’s so much going on that people kind of lose sight of the cholera case. I wouldn’t say people don’t care, but people have been discouraged over the years, thinking that nothing will be done to get reparations,” she said.

“The importance of relief is even more urgent in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, which could deal a double blow to victims of the cholera outbreak and their families,” the UN human rights experts said in their April statement.

Filippova called Secretary-General Guterres’s June 26 letter vague and said that the UN still has not taken full responsibility for cholera, despite its public apology in 2016. 

“There’s a difference between the UN investing in Haiti in various ways, versus taking direct responsibility for the harm it caused, and that’s kind of the point of the experts’ letter. And that’s why none of the projects can possibly serve the same role as actual restitution,” she said.

Sam is a reporter for The Haitian Times and a 2020 Report for America fellow. He has covered Haiti and its diaspora since 2018. His work has also appeared in USA Today, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and Haiti Liberte. Sam can be reached at sam@haitiantimes.com or on Twitter @sambojarski.

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