The United Nations inadvertently caused a deadly cholera epidemic in Haiti, and has legal and moral obligations to remedy this harm, concluded researchers at the Yale Law School and the Yale School of Public Health in a report released today.
The 58-page report, Peacekeeping without Accountability, provides the first comprehensive analysis of the cause of the massive outbreak of cholera in Haiti—which has killed over 8,000 people and sickened more than 600,000 since it began in 2010—the role the U. N. played in precipitating the crisis, and the U. N.’s responsibilities to provide legal remedies to victims of the epidemic. The report directly contradicts recent statements by the U. N. Secretary-General that the organization did not bring cholera to Haiti, and has no legal responsibilities for the epidemic or its consequences.
“While the U. N. has played an important role in the Haitian post-earthquake recovery effort, it has also caused great harm to hundreds of thousands of Haitians, ” said Tassity Johnson, a recent law school graduate and one of the authors of the report. To date, the U. N. has refused to consider the claims of approximately 5,000 Haitians seeking redress, invoking its immunity in concluding that the claims are “not receivable. ” “The U. N.’s ongoing unwillingness to hold itself accountable to victims violates its obligations under international law. Moreover, in failing to lead by example, the U. N. undercuts its very mission of promoting the rule of law, protecting human rights, and assisting in the further development of Haiti, ” Johnson said.
Peacekeeping without Accountability is the result of over a year of research into the key epidemiological and legal issues arising out of the introduction of cholera to Haiti. The report incorporates consultations with victims of the epidemic, human rights advocates, attorneys, journalists, aid workers, medical doctors, and government agency officials with first-hand knowledge of the epidemic.
The report confirms prior accounts that U. N. peacekeepers inadvertently but negligently brought cholera into Haiti, causing one of the largest epidemics in recent history. As the report documents, in October 2010, peacekeeping troops belonging to the U. N.’s Haitian mission, MINUSTAH, unknowingly carried cholera into the country. Because of inadequate water and sanitation facilities at the MINUSTAH base in the Haitian town of Méyè, sewage from the base contaminated the Artibonite River, the largest river in Haiti and one the country’s main water sources. By July 2011, cholera spread through the country, infecting one new person per minute. The epidemic continues, and public health experts estimate it will take a decade or longer to eliminate cholera from Haiti. Prior to this outbreak, cholera had not existed in Haiti for over a century.
U. N. officials have rejected the overwhelming body of evidence demonstrating that peacekeepers brought cholera into the country. Instead, they have repeatedly said that there is insufficient evidence to pinpoint the cause of the outbreak, citing a now-discredited 2011 U. N. report. However, last month the authors of the 2011 U. N. report publicly invalidated their initial conclusions. In a new study, released on July 25, 2013, these former U. N. experts wrote that, according to new evidence, MINUSTAH peacekeepers were “the most likely source of the introduction of cholera into Haiti. ”
Peacekeeping without Accountability is the first report to focus on the range of legal and moral obligations of the U. N. in connection to the cholera outbreak. As the report details, in refusing to provide a forum to address the grievances of victims of the epidemic, the U. N. violates its obligations under international law. According to the U. N. Charter and the Convention on Privileges and Immunities of the U. N., the U. N. must provide to third parties certain mechanisms for holding it accountable during peacekeeping operations—an obligation the U. N. Secretary-General has publicly recognized.
The U. N. historically has addressed the scope of its liability in peacekeeping operations through Status of Forces Agreements (SOFAs). The Haitian government signed such an agreement with MINUSTAH in 2004, in which the U. N. explicitly promised to create a standing commission to review claims of wrongdoing arising from peacekeeping operations. However, the U. N. has not established such a claims commission in Haiti, and despite having promised similar claims commissions in over 30 SOFAs since 1990, has never established one, leaving countless victims of peacekeeper wrongdoing without any remedy at law.
Beyond the SOFA, Peacekeeping without Accountability notes that the U. N.’s founding documents require that the U. N. respect international human rights law and promote respect for human rights. By failing to prevent MINUSTAH from introducing cholera into a major Haitian water system, and subsequently denying any remedy to the victims of the epidemic it caused, the U. N. failed to respect its victims’ human rights to water, health, life, and an effective remedy.
In addition, as Peacekeeping without Accountability explains, the U. N., through MINUSTAH, has acted as a humanitarian organization in Haiti; in so doing, it must comply with well-established principles and standards of international humanitarian aid. Its introduction of cholera into Haiti and its continuous refusal to accept responsibility for doing so has violated the humanitarian principles of “do no harm” and accountability to affected populations.
Peacekeeping without Accountability provides a comprehensive set of recommendations outlining the steps the U. N. and other principal actors in Haiti must take to meaningfully address the cholera epidemic and ensure U. N. compliance with its legal and moral duties. The report calls for setting up a claims commission as envisioned in the SOFA, as well as providing a public apology, direct aid to victims, infrastructural support, and adequate funding for the prevention and treatment of cholera. It also emphasizes that the prevention of similar harms in the future requires that the U. N. commit to reforming the waste management practices of its peacekeepers and complying with its contractual and international law obligations.
Peacekeeping without Accountability is issued by the Transnational Development Clinic at Yale Law School and the Global Health Justice Partnership at the Yale Law School and the Yale School of Public Health, in collaboration with the Haitian Environmental Law Association (Association Hatïenne de Droit de L’Environment ).
The Transnational Development Clinic, a part of the Jerome N. Frank Legal Services Organization at Yale Law School, works with community-based clients and client groups to promote community-centered international development, with an emphasis on equitable distribution of growth, accountable and effective institutions, and capabilities-based understandings of development. For more information, please see www.law.yale.edu/academics/transnationaldevelopmentclinic.htm .
The Global Health Justice Partnership is a joint program of Yale Law School and Yale School of Public Health to promote research, projects and academic exchanges on a global stage in the areas of law, health and human rights. For more information, please see www.law.yale.edu/intellectuallife/GHJP.htm