In Defense of the UN’s Response in Haiti | 

Haitian boy with cholera
Haitian boy with cholera
Unicef

The UN continues to refuse to take responsibility for the cholera outbreak in Haiti. It will not provide compensation to the victims, as some are calling for, claiming immunity against such claims.

Many are outraged at the UN’s stance but, beyond the recriminations, there is a legitimate debate over what the UN can and should do. Some say that the UN should claim responsibility and pay the victims. Others argue that the UN cannot do that without causing irreparable damage to its global work, and to other humanitarian endeavors.

The UN announcement last week that it will not compensate vitcims of the outbreak led to a series of strongly worded articles condemning the actions by the UN. Former AP reporter Jonathan Katz wrote in Slate:

The U.N.’s claim of immunity is ironic in Haiti, where, after all, a lack of immunity was the problem: Haitians had no resistance to the imported disease because they’d never been exposed to it before. That nightmare continues. Though cases have tapered off, there are indications the disease is once again on the rise. Haiti’s health ministry reported a spike in cases nationwide in December 2012 and January 2013, with active outbreaks continuing in three of the country’s departments.

The Economist decried the UN’s claim of immunity by comparing its situation to that of a corporation.

If a company dumped lethal waste into a river in the United States, it would be sued for negligence. But there is no legal mechanism for redress against the UN. Immunity protects it from most courts. Although its agreement with Haiti provides for a claims commission to hear grievances, that commission has never been set up. So the lawyers for the cholera claimants brought their petition directly to the secretary-general. They demanded that the UN pay damages, accept responsibility, set up the claims commission and build the sewage systems that Haiti lacks.

And journalist Ian Birrell joined the chorus of criticisms in the Guardian. He points out that the cost of compensation will cost less than it costs to fund the very peacekeeping mission in Haiti that caused the outbreak in the first place.

This is an institution that when it sends troops on missions accompanies them with lawyers to sort out minor compensation claims, such as traffic accidents involving its vehicles, or the odd roof blown off by helicopters. Yet, by invoking immunity in this weaselly manner and using the cloak of a convention designed to prevent harassment from security forces in unstable zones, it is behaving more like a dictator’s son refusing to pay parking tickets than an international body meant to show moral leadership.

Despite the connection between the UN and the outbreak and calls for the UN to assume guilt, some are pointing out that it is not quite so clear cut. Researcher Victoria Fan of the Center for Global Development questioned the direct case that can be made against the UN in a January blog post. The UN peacekeepers may be the source, but the spread of the outbreak is also linked to the lack of clean water and poor sanitation services in Haiti.

In Haiti, access to safe drinking water and water treatment is not widely available, good sanitation and hygiene are lacking, and proper treatment of diarrhea is not available to most. Just 17% of Haitians had access to proper sanitation. Who exactly in Haiti is responsible for water and sanitation – the government, the aid agencies, or the NGOs? In the case of the reintroduction of polio into Europe, the spread relied on the presence of ‘susceptible’ individuals, that is, people who were not properly immunized. As Pogo, the famous cartoon character put it, “We have seen the enemy and it is us.”

Meanwhile there is the matter of  what assuming guilt and paying damages will do to the UN’s ability to operate within countries. The Boston Globe writer Juliette Kayyem makes the case in her column that the UN has to claim immunity in this case to protect its operations elsewhere.

Diplomatic immunity for the UN soldiers was a necessity to protect international development and disaster efforts in the future. Ban’s decision protects not only the UN but also all those who serve internationally in capacities that might otherwise subject them to the whims of local politicians and judges. Such immunity ought not to protect all behavior. But had this case led to a trial pitting the UN, Nepal, and Haiti against one another, the consequences for the next disaster would be devastating.

The cases made by Fan and Kayyem point towards the thinking within the UN. It cannot claim responsibility, so it seems, without creating problems for its diplomatic immunity. While there is disagreement over what the UN should do in terms of admitting guilt and compensating victims, there are areas of complete agreement. It is accepted that the source of the outbreak was the UN peacekeeping mission from Nepal. Because of that, the UN has a responsibility to carry out a mission that will address the problem at hand and assist the Haitian government in developing a water and sanitation system that will prevent this from happening again.

Accomplishing these goals comes with a price tag: $2.27 billion over 10 years. A fraction of that money has been raised so far. At the same time, countries have not even met their obligations and pledges following the earthquake 3 years ago. All the while, cholera persists in Haiti.

  • Victoria Fan

    Hi Tom,

    Thanks for your post. In my blog (http://blogs.cgdev.org/globalhealth/2013/01/responsibility-in-the-time-of-cholera-what-the-un-and-others-should-do-in-haiti.php), I never assess the legal merit of the case (I freely admitted that I’m not a lawyer and not equipped to assess this) nor do I ever address the issue of diplomatic issue. But I do assess the moral merit of the case — in which case there is a strong ethical case for the UN to invest in water and sanitation in Haiti. My main point has been that, regardless of whether there is a legal case, there is an ethical case. I do fear, however, that this legal case will paradoxically make the UN further retract from its ethical responsibilities.

    In a previous blog, I noted the general tendency to engage in the blame game when it comes to infectious disease, and that such blaming often is unproductive in achieving the goal of controlling a disease outbreak: http://blogs.cgdev.org/globalhealth/2012/01/cholera-in-haiti-the-blame-game.php

    Victoria