U.N. continues to stumble — badly — in Haiti

A boy receives a dose of the vaccine against cholera in Saut d'Eau, in the Central Plateau of Haiti, in 2014.
A boy receives a dose of the vaccine against cholera in Saut d'Eau, in the Central Plateau of Haiti, in 2014. AFP/Getty Images

Nowhere is the United Nations’ lack of accountability more glaring than in Haiti. The U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) is responsible for causing a cholera epidemic that has killed thousands and for crimes, including sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA), that have largely gone unpunished.

Thursday, as the Security Council votes on the future of MINUSTAH, it has a last chance to ensure that its mission’s legacy includes an accountable response for the harms it has caused. If the United Nations replaces MINUSTAH without doing right by Haiti, its successor mission, whose mandate will focus on promoting rule of law, will lack the credibility to succeed from its inception.

After six years of unconscionably denying its culpability in causing cholera, then-outgoing Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon finally accepted moral responsibility for the U.N.’s role and its “collective responsibility to deliver” relief. He announced the New Approach, a $400 million strategy comprising two tracks: the first focused on upgrading badly failing water, sanitation and health infrastructure systems; and the second entailing “a package of material assistance and support to those Haitians most directly affected by cholera, centered on the victims and their families and communities.”

Observers were cautiously optimistic that the United Nations would finally remediate the harm caused when infected Nepalese peacekeepers recklessly discharged raw sewage, spreading a disease never before reported in poorest country in the Americas.

But instead of acting quickly to fulfill its promise to stanch the epidemic’s lethal toll and aid struggling survivors, the U.N. has stumbled again. On March 19, the New York Times revealed that the organization has only raised $2 million of the $400 million it promised to eradicate the disease and compensate its victims. Of the U.N.’s 193 member states, only six have voluntarily donated to the trust set up to fund the New Approach, with two countries donating just over $7 million to separate anti-cholera efforts. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is among those urging the U.N. to fulfill its obligation to the people of Haiti. But despite the anemic reception to his fundraising efforts, the Secretary-General is tabling a move to assess mandatory contributions in the face of stiff resistance from certain member states.

The United Nations has also failed to redress sexual exploitation and abuse by its peacekeepers in the ravaged country. A preliminary independent investigation by Mark Snyder earlier this year found that the U.N.’s efforts “have failed to interrupt a persistent cycle of exploitation and abuse followed by U.N. statements of regret and reform, and then additional incidents of SEA.” In March, the U.N. launched new measures to curtail SEA, including penalties for failures in investigating claims funneled into a trust fund for victims. But the report doesn’t indicate who would pay the fines, repeating a familiar pledge to aid victims without ensuring the money to back it up.

Against the backdrop of its transgressions in Haiti, the U.N. is voting this week on withdrawing MINUSTAH, a move long demanded by many who deeply resent the harm inflicted by those sent to protect them. The U.N.’s new secretary-general, António Guterres, favors winding down the force in six months and replacing it with a leaner successor mission that will focus on rule of law and police development. Yet Guterres failed to reflect on how the U.N. can purport to strengthen Haiti’s institutions when its own conduct fails to satisfy bedrock principles of democracy, or whether the $346 million annual budget would be better spent repairing the organization’s tarnished cholera legacy instead.

If the U.N. wants to advance its mission of promoting justice and human rights, it must right its wrongs. No money spent on U.N. work to advance the rule of law in Haiti will have its intended impact unless the organization models the accountability that is necessary to re-establish its credibility. Given the current global uncertainties, the U.N.’s legitimacy is more important than ever.

Lauren Carasik is clinical professor of law and director of the International Human Rights Clinic at Western New England University School of Law in Springfield, Massachusetts.