On October 23 Haiti’s cholera victims finally had their first court hearing regarding their suit against the UN.  However, no one from the UN showed up.  Since 2011, representatives of the victims have sought to obtain reparations from the UN given the overwhelming evidence that troops from the United Nations’ Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) were responsible for bringing cholera to the island.  As the UN has refused to receive the victims’ claims, human rights lawyers at the Haiti-based Bureau des Avocats Internationaux and U.S.-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, filed a lawsuit in U.S. courts.  After months of deliberations, the Southern Federal District Court of New York held a hearing on the question of whether the UN could enjoy immunity from prosecution when it had violated its treaty obligations to submit to alternative dispute resolution mechanisms.  While the victims’ legal representatives argued against UN immunity vis-à-vis the cholera claims, no UN representative appeared before the court and, instead, the U.S. Attorney General’s office presented arguments in defense of the UN.  The court’s decision on the immunity question is still pending.

Now, 77 members of the U.S. House of Representatives, led by senior Democrat John Conyers, have weighed in with a letter urging UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon “to create a fair process to adjudicate the claims made by cholera victims that allows for the remediation of the affected communities.”

As the letter points out, thousands of Haitians have died since the cholera epidemic began in October 2010 – at least 8,774 [PDF] according to Haiti’s health ministry – and over 700,000 Haitians have become infected, putting a terrible burden on a country with no clean water infrastructure to speak of and few health professionals to help prevent and abate the epidemic. 

The letter lays out the reasons why the UN should be legally obliged to provide a settlement mechanism for the victims:

The Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations (CPIUN) mandates that the UN “provide for appropriate modes of settlement” of private law claims. The Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) the UN signed with the Government of Haiti expands on this obligation by specifying that claims are to be heard and settled by a standing commission. The UN has formally recognized the importance of access to justice in its own Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy for Victims of Violations of International Human Rights Law and Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law.

This isn’t the first time that Conyers and other members of Congress have publicly pressed the UN to do much more to address Haiti’s deadly cholera epidemic.  In July of 2012, Conyers and 103 other House representatives signed a letter calling for the UN to “act decisively” to control the epidemic.  This and other international pressure no doubt contributed to Ban Ki-moon eventually launching, with much fanfare, a “new initiative” to help fund a $2.2 billion cholera elimination plan for Haiti, involving the development of extensive drinking water and sanitation systems.  At the time, the Secretary-General proudly announced that $215 million of existing international donations had been earmarked for the plan but also noted that $500 million would be needed over the following two years to keep the plan advancing according to schedule.

After over a year had passed and no further funding for the cholera plan had materialized, Conyers and 64 of his House colleagues sent a letter to U.S. ambassador to the UN Samantha Power that noted that:

Current efforts by the UN to eradicate the cholera epidemic in Haiti are far from sufficient. In order for the UN to maintain its credibility around the world, it is imperative for it to acknowledge its legal responsibility and act now. This means fully funding the Cholera Elimination Plan and working to improve the water and sanitation infrastructure in Haiti.

Finally, a much-delayed “high-level” donor conference on cholera in Haiti was convened in October of 2014 in Washington, DC.  Presided over by both Ban Ki-moon and World Bank president Jim Kim, all of the major international donors to Haiti were present, but only the World Bank and the government of Japan stepped up to the plate, with the former committing $50 million and the latter $2.5 million.

In July of 2014, the UN Secretary-General visited Haiti and recognized that the UN had a “moral responsibility” to help Haiti and Haitians deal with cholera.  Yet, while the UN manages to find multilateral funding for its controversial Haiti “peacekeeping” mission to the tune of $500 to $700 million per year, the cholera elimination plan remains grossly underfunded and, meanwhile, the UN continues to block reparations for cholera victims’ families. 

Conyers and his colleagues end their latest letter to the UN with an impassioned plea: 

In the interests of securing justice for the victims and impacted communities as well as strengthening the UN’s leadership as a champion for human rights, we urge you to act immediately to establish a settlement mechanism through which victims and their families may seek relief and the country can move forward with the water and sanitation infrastructure it so desperately needs. Unless and until the UN honors the fundamental right to access justice, the issue of UN accountability in Haiti will remain.