In September 2014, four United Nations human-rights experts wrote to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon alleging that the UN had violated human rights through the cholera epidemic in Haiti, which broke out in October 2010. This is the first time that an allegation letter — a formal complaint procedure typically used against governments — has been filed against the UN. The letter and the UN’s response have, finally, been leaked to the public.
The 34-page response from the UN is the longest and most substantive explanation that the world body has provided so far on the cholera epidemic, despite years of questions from the media and rights groups on the UN’s responsibility on the matter.
It appears that the UN is much more willing to engage with and respond to human-rights experts than it is with the cholera victims and their legal representatives. In many respects, that is the most shocking discovery of the entire process: the UN feels more obliged to respond fully to independent experts than it does to the individuals affected by the epidemic.
Since October 2010, 731,880 cholera cases and 8,741 related deaths have been recorded through February 2015. The national cumulative death rate remains at 1.2 percent.
The four human-rights experts who wrote to Ban are part of the special procedures system in the UN human-rights machinery. Special procedures mandate holders are human-rights experts who are unpaid and undertake their duties part time; their independence from the UN and from states enables them to have legitimacy and credibility in their fact-finding, reporting, recommendations and other functions. The independence of mandate holders, combined with their significant expertise, makes them the crown jewel of the UN human-rights mechanisms.
The letter was written and signed by the experts on adequate housing (Leilani Farha); safe drinking water and sanitation (Catarina de Albuquerque); health (Dainius Puras); and Haiti itself (Gustavo Gallon). All four experts raised serious concerns and questions about the violations of Haitians’ human rights caused by the outbreak and failure to eradicate cholera in their country. All four also raised serious concerns and questions about the UN actions and failures to remedy the situation or provide redress to victims.
Ban, despite producing a lengthy response to the letter, failed to adequately address many of the crucial issues raised by the experts and by legal experts acting on behalf of the cholera victims. In particular, the UN has still not addressed the issue of victims’ right to a remedy and continues to insist that it was not responsible for systemic weaknesses and failures that took place on its watch.
The facts are well known. Cholera was introduced by Nepalese peacekeepers who had been inadequately tested for the disease despite the high incidence of cholera in Nepal. Cholera spread through raw feces flowing from a UN peacekeeping camp directly into a tributary of the Artibonite River in Haiti — a river that hundreds of thousands of people rely upon daily for drinking water and for bathing. The UN failed to contain the disease, with vaccination attempts occurring too late and not in sufficient numbers.
Not only have thousands of people have died and hundreds been infected, infections are still being recorded today. The number of cases and deaths registered in 2015 so far are actually higher than those recorded in the same period of 2014 and of 2012, says the World Health Organization.
The UN has steadfastly refused to set up commissions or boards to hear victims’ claims and has relied on absolute immunity as a shield from such claims being brought before the New York District Court.
It is clear from this latest leak of information that the UN is widely viewed as being not only liable for private law claims but also for human-rights violations. When the UN acts as a hybrid sovereign power in a country through a peacekeeping mission that is assuming state functions or roles, it must and should be held liable for human-rights violations in the same way that a state would be held liable. As cutting-edge legal academics are also insisting, the UN was for all intents and purposes the sovereign power (in all but name) during that time.
The allegation letter provided by the four independent human-rights experts demonstrates that the UN is in over its head if it thinks it can continue to ignore calls for justice for Haiti’s cholera victims. Just as an abusive government will eventually be held to account for violating rights and subjugating people, so too will the UN be held accountable for doing the same in Haiti.
[This essay was updated on April 23 to add the names of the four rights experts.]
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Dr. Rosa Freedman is a senior lecturer at Birmingham Law School, University of Birmingham, England. Her research focuses on the United Nations and human rights, particularly the political effects on international human-rights law. Dr. Freedman has published extensively on the UN Human Rights Council and is working on a British Academy-funded project on UN special procedures. Her other main research project is on UN peacekeeping and accountability for human-rights abuses committed during such operations.
Dr. Freedman has published two books, “Failing to Protect: The UN and the Politicization of Human Rights” and “The United Nations Human Rights Council: A Critique and Early Assessment.” Her academic articles have appeared in such journals as the European Journal of International Law and Human Rights Quarterly. She also writes for national and digital media, works closely with the UN and with state governments and sits on the advisory boards of international NGOs.
Dr. Freedman received a master of laws degree from University College London and a Ph.D. from Queen Mary University of London.