The U.N.’s claim of immunity in response to the legal complaint filed against it on behalf of over 6,000 cholera victims has provoked outrage. Author Kathie Klarreich called it “unconscionable and immoral” in a Miami Herald op-ed yesterday, saying the U.N.’s statement “appears more like an apology for a snake bite than an effective response to what is currently the worst cholera outbreak in the world.” Klarreich underscores the urgency of cholera in contrast to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s expressed sympathy:
The World Health Organization expects 100,000 new cases this year alone, and some think that’s conservative, given the data. Many, if not most, of the non-governmental organizations that were involved in educating Haitians about the bacteria have scaled back their programs or closed shop, taking with them the chlorine they had been providing to make drinking water safe, and the soap to wash hands, fruits and vegetables.
Writing for the Atlantic, Armin Rosen suggests that “If a multinational corporation behaved the way the U.N. did in Haiti, it would be sued for stratospheric amounts of money.” As well “They would have to contend with Interpol red notices, along with the occasional cream pie attack.”
Former AP correspondent Jonathan Katz, whose important work in documenting the source of the outbreak is detailed in his book The Big Truck That Went By notes that the U.N. immunity claim is just the latest in a series of efforts to stall and obstruct the efforts of cholera victims to receive justice – and for the U.N. to take appropriate action to stop cholera. Katz writes in Slate:
A more recent tactic has been for the U.N. to shut down talk about the epidemic’s cause by discussing its new effort to eradicate the disease—despite the fact that the primary program it is touting is not actually a U.N. effort, lacks clear goals, and remains almost totally unfunded.
Katz notes that “Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon added a generic statement expressing sympathy for the thousands killed and hundreds of thousands sickened or left unable to work by the disease. His spokesman dodged all further questions.”
As Katz points out – as does legal blogger Kristen Boon - with this immunity claim, the U.N. has now attempted to preempt each possible venue for the victims’ redress: Haitian courts (from which the U.N. claims it has immunity), the standing claims commission which the U.N. has never set up, and any hearing of the claims internally.
The Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) finds the U.N.’s decision all the more egregious because of its dubious claim that the complaint is based on “policy.” A letter [PDF] from the U.N.’s Under-Secretary for Legal Affairs to Brian Concannon of IJDH states:
With respect to the claims submitted, consideration of these claims would necessarily include a review of political and policy matters. Accordingly, these claims are not receivable pursuant to Section 29 of the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations, adopted by the General Assembly on 13 February 1946.
This raises the question: is it U.N. policy to dump raw sewage into rivers of countries where it operates, even when those countries lack adequate water and sanitation services? If so, is this really the kind of defense the U.N. wants to make for itself?
Concannon offers his take to the Atlantic: "If dumping sewage is a policy, it has two consequences[.] The first is that it's a problematic policy and they should answer questions about that. And secondly -- if that's allowed to be under a policy that's not reviewable, anything is 'not reviewable.'"
Katz argues that it is well within the U.N.’s capacity to fulfill the demands in the IJDH complaint:
The U.N. estimates it would cost $2.27 billion to provide the necessary infrastructure in Haiti over the next 10 years. The victims’ lawyers have asked for up to $100,000 in additional compensation for each of the families they represent. In all, the total cost would probably be shy of $3 billion—a bargain compared with the economic, social, and personal damage the epidemic has brought. To put that figure in perspective, MINUSTAH’s budget for 2013 alone—again, a quarter of which is provided by the United States—is $644 million. Reduce the size of the nine-year-old peacekeeping mission, which after all is patrolling a country that’s not at war, and you could start paying that debt down quickly.
That the U.N. could help “stabilize” Haiti by putting the MINUSTAH budget toward cholera eradication is a point that CEPR Co-Director Mark Weisbrot also made on Thursday, saying, “They have the resources to put an end to cholera in Haiti for less money than they are going to spend in the next year or two on keeping U.N. troops there. But they're in no rush to right the wrongs that they have done.”
Departing from its normally low profile on the subject of the U.N.’s responsibility for the cholera epidemic, Partners in Health’s Louise Ivers had an op-ed in the New York Times over the weekend also pointing out that
the organization’s stabilization mission in Haiti is budgeted for $648 million this year — a sum that could more than finance the entire cholera elimination initiative for two years.
It’s time for the United Nations to rethink what true stabilization could be: preventing people from dying of a grueling, painful — and wholly preventable — disease is a good start.