By Myrtha Désulmé
On 24 August, Tropical Storm Isaac pummelled Haiti, resulting in floods, mudslides, and storm surges; downing trees and power lines. The storm threatened the lives of millions, particularly the more than 400,000 homeless Haitians, still living in flimsy tents, exposed to the elements like sitting ducks, two-and-half years after the January 2010 earthquake. Painful images of tent-dwellers bracing against fierce winds, with a background of flying tents containing all of their worldly possessions, were streamed on CNN between news of another US shooting incident, and the joys of Australian river rafting. Adding to the crisis was the fear of an ensuing surge of the cholera epidemic introduced into Haiti by the UN forces.
Myrtha Désulmé is president of the Haiti-Jamaica Society and the Caribbean representative of the Haitian Diaspora Federation
On 21 October, 2010, ten months after the greatest natural disaster of the modern age, cholera exploded in the Artibonite region along Haiti’s central river system, quickly spreading to other areas. Haiti went from never having had a cholera outbreak in recorded history, to now having, based on the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO), “one of the largest cholera epidemics in modern history”, which has killed more than 7,450 Haitians, and infected over 580,000 to date. The initial death toll from TS Isaac is reportedly at twenty-four, but this number could spike due to the potential increase in cholera cases.
Numerous independent DNA tests and epidemiological studies, including those of the UN itself, have established that Nepalese troops to the UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) brought the vibrio cholerae bacteria to Haiti. Geneticists have precisely matched the epidemic strain in Haiti to a particularly virulent, deadly cholera strain found in Nepal in the summer of 2010, just before the troops were deployed. Although Nepal has endemic cholera, the UN did not test or treat the Nepalese peacekeepers for cholera prior to their deployment. In Haiti, they lived on a base with a haphazard and inadequate sewage system, and recklessly dumped all waste into an unfenced pit. It was easily foreseeable that human feces containing cholera bacteria could contaminate a tributary, which runs just meters from the base into the Artibonite River, traveling downstream to infect the Haitian families who drink, bathe, play, and wash laundry in the river.
Three of the brave souls who have taken on the UN leviathan are attorneys Marguerite Laurent of the Haitian Lawyers Leadership Network, Mario Joseph of the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI), and Brian Concannon of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH).
On 3 November, 2011, BAI and IJDH filed a lawsuit on behalf of 5,000 cholera victims. The case demands that the UN provide the only long-term solution, which is the comprehensive clean water and sanitation infrastructure necessary to control the epidemic. Cholera is generally easily treatable with oral rehydration solutions. But for those who lack access to clean water and medical care, it can kill in a matter of hours. Medical treatment, vaccinations, and chlorine tablets are saving some lives for now, but cholera immunity lasts only a few years, while the cholera bacteria will remain in Haiti indefinitely. The water and sanitation infrastructure will not only eradicate cholera, it will reduce all water-borne diseases in Haiti, which kill thousands every year.
Incredibly, the UN initially denied responsibility on the premise that a “confluence of factors”, including Haiti’s weak sanitation and health infrastructure, were the real reasons for the outbreak. This preposterous, and legally invalid defense, is akin to starting a fire in a dry field, and blaming the wind for the spread of the fire. Before the outbreak, Haiti was widely known to be one of the most water insecure countries in the world, and after the devastating earthquake of January 2010, experts warned that outbreaks of water-borne diseases, especially cholera, would have disastrous effects. Haiti’s fragile conditions created a heightened responsibility for the UN to exercise care in its operations. Yet the UN failed to take simple measures that would have prevented the outbreak, like testing of its soldiers known to come from a cholera-endemic region, proper management and disposal of waste, and immediate corrective action. By any legal code, the UN is legally responsible, because their carelessness directly caused foreseeable harm to victims.
The victims of cholera filed complaints directly with the UN’s internal claims unit. MINUSTAH’s operations in Haiti are governed by a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which affords the UN and MINUSTAH broad immunities from civil or criminal action in Haitian courts. To balance this immunity, the SOFA requires the establishment of an independent Standing Claims Commission, to hear claims and compensate victims, who have been injured in the course of UN operations. Despite this requirement, no commission has been established during the eight years MINUSTAH has operated in Haiti. In fact, there has never been a Standing Claims Commission established in over 60 years of UN peacekeeping, even though these commissions are a standard feature of most SOFAs.
Momentum has been building, to pressure the UN to respond justly to the epidemic. In January, ABC News published an article entitled: UN Soldiers Brought Deadly Superbug to Americas.
In March, President Bill Clinton, UN Special Envoy for Haiti, publicly affirmed that UN peacekeepers were the “proximate cause” of the cholera epidemic, while hundreds of Haitians marched from the UN’s base to the Haitian parliament, demanding justice for cholera victims. The New York Times ran a front-page story confirming the UN’s responsibility in bringing cholera to Haiti, and exposing its failure to respond accordingly. After a visit to Haiti by the UN Security Council, the missions of the US, France, and Pakistan, declared to the Security Council that the UN must do “whatever is necessary to make this situation right”.
In April, The Economist published a scathing piece calling on the UN to accept responsibility for its wrongdoings in Haiti. In May, Nigel Fischer, UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Haiti, acknowledged that the UN’s current efforts were “patchwork, band-aid work,” and that “the long-term solution was investment in improved drinking water sources and waste management.”
Washington Post editorials also called for the UN and the international community to take responsibility swiftly in ending the cholera epidemic.
On 17 July, US Representative John Conyers, Jr. (D-Mich.), and 103 other Members of Congress sent a letter to Susan Rice, US Ambassador to the United Nations, applauding her call for UN accountability, and asking her to urge the organisation to take a leading role in addressing the cholera crisis in Haiti, which according to the Haitian Government, infects 600 new victims every day.
The congressmen wrote: “As cholera was brought to Haiti due to the actions of the UN, we believe that it is imperative for the UN to now act decisively to eliminate this deadly disease from Haiti.... A failure to act will not only lead to countless more deaths: it will undermine the crucial effort to reconstruct Haiti.”
The IJDH/BAI lawsuit aims to compel the UN to spend $750 million – 1.2 billion on comprehensive water and sanitation infrastructure, which would improve Haiti for decades. By comparison, MINUSTAH’s operating budget in Haiti for one year is around $800 million, and $4.2 billion in international donations have not even been disbursed. If the lawsuit is successful, the clean water and sanitation infrastructure will save between 50,000 – 70,000 lives over the next ten years, by eradicating cholera, and all other water-borne diseases.
In the words of Bet¬sey Chace, a finance vol¬un¬teer with IJDH: “... fair treatment of Haiti by the international community [is] the only thing that will enable Haiti to break the cycle of extreme vulnerability to disasters. There is little natural about a death toll in the [hundreds] of thousands from an earthquake of 7.0 magnitude, or massive loss of life from heavy rainfall. These unnatural disasters result from political, environmental, and economic conditions that will improve only when Haitians are supported rather than thwarted in building a system of laws, rights, and accountability, that are the foundation of a just and safe society.”
In July 2010, the UN General Assembly adopted a Resolution recognising access to clean water and sanitation as a human right essential to human dignity, and to the realisation of all other human rights. Are Haitians not entitled to basic human rights?
Caribbean leaders, your silence is deafening. What will it take for you to declare that the continuing loss of life in Haiti is wholly unacceptable? We call upon you to be a force for justice in Haiti, by demanding accountability from the UN, urging it to live up to its core mission, of containing infectious diseases, not spreading them.