Last week’s decision by the United Nations to reject a claim to compensate Haiti’s half-million-plus cholera victims and their families is unconscionable and immoral. Numerous studies find that contaminated fecal matter from the U.N.’s Nepalese contingent was the source of the country’s cholera epidemic.
No one is suggesting that the asymptomatic Nepalese soldiers knew they were carrying the deadly bacteria — though if a recommendation to screen all peacekeepers before deployment was a requirement, as has been recommended, this whole tragedy could have been avoided. What the victims, legal teams and human rights activists believe is that rather than repair a broken sewage pipe, the U.N. rerouted the sewage to empty into the region’s main water source.
The result is old news by now, figures that just add to the growing misery of Haiti’s disasters, man-made or otherwise. Cholera kills an average of two to three people per day in Haiti. Nearly 8,000 have died of cholera since health officials diagnosed the first case in October 2010.
If only this were a mere public relations nightmare. But given the rejection by the U.N., it appears more like an apology for a snake bite than an effective response to what is currently the worst cholera outbreak in the world. That it devoted just a few lines to justify its rejection is as offensive as the offense itself. The release says that the claim was “not receivable” under the 1946 convention that grants the U.N. immunity for its actions.
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Brian Concannon, one of the lawyers taking the world body to task, says that only an organization with no fear of being dragged through courts would respond like this: “No company, even a private one in Haiti, would have let sewage like that go to a river because it would have been too much of a legal risk.”
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has expressed his “profound sympathy for the terrible suffering caused by the cholera epidemic” and last December announced a $2.27 billion initiative to help eradicate cholera in Haiti.
Really? The World Health Organization expects 100,000 new cases this year alone, and some think that’s conservative, given the data. Many, if not most, of the non-governmental organizations that were involved in educating Haitians about the bacteria have scaled back their programs or closed shop, taking with them the chlorine they had been providing to make drinking water safe, and the soap to wash hands, fruits and vegetables.
Within a year of the outbreak, just 12 percent of the camps had hand-washing soap and seven percent clean water, down nearly 50 percent from five months earlier. Funding to clean out the portable toilets in the camps that were set up for Haiti’s half-a-million earthquake refugees stopped long ago.
Concannon and his team will appeal, either in Haiti, the United States or Europe. With their army of volunteers, activists and pro bono counsel they will march on, hoping to limit their spending to hundreds of thousands of dollars in contrast to the U.N., which, with its cadre of legal staff, could spend tens of millions.
That’s still far less than then the minimum of $100,000 for each bereaved family and $50,000 for each cholera survivor that was requested in the lawsuit.
But this is not all about money. It’s about lives, legacies and doing the right thing.
There’s still reason to hope that justice will prevail. Immunity does not mean impunity. On the same day that the U.N. announced its rejection of the claim, the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights released a strong anti-impunity statement, saying that “there is no statute of limitation under international law for serious violations of human rights amounting to international crimes, such as torture, extrajudicial executions, forced disappearances and rape.”
More than two years after his return following a 25-year departure, former dictator Jean Claude Duvalier received word in Haiti that he will have to appear in court this Thursday to respond to a hearing of accusations of human rights violations.
Hopefully the waiting period for cholera victims and their families will be significantly shorter.
Kathie Klarreich, author of Madame Dread: A Tale of Love, Vodou and Civil Strife in Haiti, has covered Haiti and lived there periodically since 1986.