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Amid cholera lawsuit, UN’s scandal-ridden presence in Haiti continues

A new, potentially precedent-setting lawsuit filed by Haitians against the UN came the same week the Security Council voted, yesterday, to reauthorize maintaining peacekeeping troops in Haiti for another year.
A Haitian mother and daughter get treated for cholera.

The United Nations sent its blue-helmeted troops to Haiti nearly a decade ago, but a series of scandals has made it appear as less a force for good than a hostile occupation.

A new, potentially precedent-setting lawsuit filed by Haitians against the UN came the same week the Security Council voted, yesterday, to reauthorize maintaining peacekeeping troops in Haiti for another year.

The only Security Council representative to discuss the decision publicly, from Britain, admitted the decision “makes little sense,” since Haiti has no military conflict.

The UN mission to Haiti has been dogged by scandal since its inception in 2004, including repeated instances of sexual abuse by its troops. Just last month, an 18-year-old Haitian woman came forward with allegations that a Sri Lankan soldier pulled her aside from a roadside checkpoint and raped her.

Perhaps the biggest scandal of all is Haiti’s cholera epidemic. While the UN has denied any connection to the outbreak, scientific studies have pinpointed the UN’s dumping of human waste into Haiti’s waterways as the most likely source for the outbreak.

On Tuesday, a law firm sued the UN in a New York court on behalf of cholera victims. They had previously filed claims for compensation with the UN itself, but the world body, after a long delay, said the claims “were not receivable,” citing its diplomatic immunity.

The UN won’t discuss the lawsuit, a spokesman told Reuters, but is doing all it can “to help the people of Haiti overcome the cholera epidemic.” The Security Council, meanwhile, didn’t address the cholera issue in its extension of the mission’s mandate.

One of the lawyers involved in suing the UN, the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti’s Brian Concannon, condemned the Security Council’s decision. “The council demonstrated its priorities by authorizing hundreds of millions of dollars for a peacekeeping operation in a country that has not had a war in my lifetime,” he said, “with no diversion of funds from soldiers to the cholera epidemic that is killing about 1,000 Haitians a year.”

Critics say the lawsuit undermines the UN’s ability to intervene around the world without fear of getting sued. “It’s true,” Concannon responded, “that the prospect of lawsuits could force the UN to take steps, some costing money, to reduce the harm its operations cause to the vulnerable populations that host its peacekeeping operations. But that’s not entirely a bad thing.”

And he went further, arguing that “forcing the UN to respect its own principles” towards victims of cholera in Haiti will also “force the organization to respect its legal obligations towards victims of sexual assault and other harms” committed by its peacekeepers.

Diplomatic immunity has been a cornerstone of the UN, but it shouldn’t be a shield for the organization to commit gross negligence and for its soldiers to commit crimes with abandon. A claims commission to hear charges against peacekeepers, called for by its original mandate, was simply never set up. A UN peacekeeping spokesman says the mission has settled hundreds of damage claims in Haiti individually—”virtually all of them for traffic accidents.”

When it comes to more serious crimes, the UN effectively blocked attempts to investigate by Haiti’s justice system. One example is the highly charged case of a 16-year-old Haitian interpreter whose body was found hanging inside a UN peacekeeping base, weeks before the cholera outbreak. His family said he was murdered, while the UN claimed he committed suicide.

But the pressure is building. This week, the UN’s seemingly impenetrable wall of silence and denial on the cholera issue cracked for a second time, when the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said she “stand[s]by the call that victims” of cholera for compensation. Previously, former UN Special Envoy to Haiti Bill Clinton admitted that peacekeepers brought the disease to Haiti.

Last month, Haitian Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe said the UN bears a “moral responsibility” for the epidemic. Today, he says on Twitter he’s meeting with UN officials to discuss the issue.

Pillay’s office did not respond to requests for comment on the Security Council’s extension of the mission.

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Ansel Herz

Ansel Herz is a freelance multimedia journalist whose objective is to “go to where the silence is." His work has been published by ABC News, The Nation magazine, the New York Daily News, Al Jazeera English, Free Speech Radio News, Inter-Press News and many other publications. A Seattle native and survivor of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, Ansel is producer of Humanosphere's podcast, among other things. You can contact him at ansel.herz[at]gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @Ansel.