Will State Inaction at UN Imperil Haiti Cholera Response?

Cholera vaccinations are administered by the UN and public health officials. Arcahaie, Haiti, May 10, 2016 (Logan Abassi/UN Photo)

The United Nations took a decisive step toward strengthening accountability when it announced a “new approach” to cholera in Haiti, on December 1 last year. In an official apology for the UN mission in Haiti’s role in the disease outbreak, then Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon acknowledged not only the UN’s “moral duty” to “do the right thing for the Haitian people,” but also the international community’s “collective responsibility to deliver.” Six years after the start of what remains the world’s largest modern day cholera epidemic, the apology and commitment to redress marked an important shift from the UN’s earlier and widely criticized denial of responsibility for the outbreak.

Yet just four months later, concerns abound that the world body will fail to deliver on the promise of its new approach. Voluntary contributions are stagnant: The trust fund established by the UN has received only $2.7 million of the $400 million estimated to be required, with additional contributions bringing the funding total to roughly $10 million. Now, Secretary-General António Guterres appears to have caved to pressure from some UN member states to take the option of funding its new approach through assessed contributions off the table, despite other states favoring this approach.

Thus, there is a real risk that the UN will break its promise to the people of Haiti, dealing another blow to the organization’s credibility on the world stage. This would also send a message that member state commitment to peacekeeper accountability stops at the point where funding is needed. As the New York Times put it in a recent editorial, the lack of follow-through to date provides a “lesson in evading moral responsibility.” At a time when faith in multilateralism and peacekeeping is receding, this is a blow the UN cannot afford.

The Outbreak and Its Aftermath

The cholera epidemic started in 2010, when a contingent with the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) discharged untreated human sewage into the country’s largest river system, contaminating it with a disease never before seen in the country. Later studies revealed grossly inadequate systems of cracked sewerage pipes and overflowing septic tanks on several peacekeeping bases across Haiti.

For years, the UN denied the scientific consensus that it introduced cholera and rejected claims for damages filed by victims. Its response—that the claims were “not receivable”—has become emblematic of a bureaucratic resistance to accountability that defies the UN’s own principles and legal precedent. As detailed in a report by the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, consensus that the response was “wholly unconvincing in legal terms” spurred “systematically critical” media coverage and expert condemnation of the UN’s “shabby formalism” and “dangerous legalism.” Other special rapporteurs stressed that the failure to provide damages to victims, even in the face of manifestly valid claims, “undermines the reputation of the United Nations, calls into question the ethical framework within which its peace-keeping forces operate, and challenges the credibility of the Organization as an entity that respects human rights.”

While the UN denied and deflected, cholera took an immense human toll in Haiti. The outbreak has claimed at least 9,400 lives—a death toll comparable to the West African Ebola outbreak— and sickened a further 800,000. But, unlike Ebola, Haiti’s cholera outbreak remains a dire threat to this day: The UN estimates that another 30,000 people will contract cholera in 2017.

In the absence of action, the impact of the deaths and illnesses will continue to be felt across Haiti. Cholera has brought significant financial burdens, including burial costs, accrual of debts for treatment and other expenses, loss of family breadwinners, and lost supplemental income. Children are especially vulnerable to long-term impacts, because many are orphaned and forced to take up labor and leave school as a result of the disease.

The Promise of a New Approach

Against this background, the UN’s apology and launch of a new approach were significant steps forward and welcomed by many victims. The organization has adopted a two-track model: Track 1 focuses on much needed efforts to treat, control, and eradicate cholera; Track 2 is a necessary complement that promises to deliver “a package of material assistance and support to those Haitians most directly affected by cholera, centered on the victims and their families and communities.”

Track 2 is intended to signify a “concrete and sincere expression of the Organization’s regret,” and is consistent with the UN’s longstanding commitment—contained in all its status of forces agreements—of compensating civilians who suffer “injury, illness or death attributable to UN peacekeepers.” It also responds to calls from victims, civil society, the media, and the UN’s own human rights system—such as the high commissioner for human rights—for remedial action including compensation. The new approach is thus a critical opportunity to bring the cholera epidemic in Haiti to a halt, compensate those most affected, and restore the UN’s standing on the world stage.

The Need for Member State Action

The UN’s ability to deliver on its new promise ultimately depends on its member states, who share a collective responsibility to remedy harms caused by its operations. The General Assembly welcomed the new approach to cholera in a resolution passed on December 16, 2016, and called on “all Member States, relevant United Nations bodies and other international governmental and non-governmental partners to provide their full support to the new approach.” To date, those words have not translated into action.  If member states do not come through with the needed funds, accountability in peacekeeping will remain a fiction.

States could also lead, by calling on the UN Secretariat to engage victims and incorporate their perspectives in the ongoing cholera response. For the expression of regret to be credible, the UN needs to begin to listen to those Haitian voices that have been silenced until now.

In workshops across the country, Haitians are discussing their priorities for what a just recovery from cholera would look like. In particular, they are focused on implementation of the material assistance promised in Track 2 of the new UN model, and wish to realize the secretary-general’s vision for soliciting community input and ensuring a “victim-centered” process. Grounding the new cholera approach in Haitian perspectives will help to safeguard its legitimacy in the eyes of the stakeholders who matter most and ensure that member state investments translate to successful outcomes.

As the UN moves towards ending MINUSTAH, the organization and its members face a choice about what kind of legacy they leave behind. Sticking with its promises would establish a model for accountability, advance the fight against disease, and promote the rule of law. Breaking the recent pledge—on top of the six years of denials and the nearly 10,000 deaths—is likely to make cholera’s stain on the UN’s reputation indelible and squander the credibility necessary to carry out peacekeeping functions for years to come.

Nathan Yaffe is a member of the legal team at the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti.