Cholera as a Human Rights Issue

November 13, 2012

A new human rights report reaffirms the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti’s (MINUSTAH) responsibility for causing the cholera epidemic that has now killed over 7,600 and infected over 600,000. The Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) “Call[s] on MINUSTAH to acknowledge its responsibility with respect to the outbreak of the cholera epidemic and establish a permanent claims commission,” and “Request[s] the office of the UN Secretary-General to take measures to award individual or communal reparations, such as financial investment in water and sanitation infrastructure in Haiti.” These recommendations echo the petition filed by the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) and the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti on behalf of over 5,000 cholera victims, the demands of an international grassroots campaign, editorials in the New York Times, the New York Daily News and other major newspapers, and op-eds such as this one in The Guardian yesterday by CEPR Co-Director Mark Weisbrot. The Boston Globe is the latest major paper to call for the U.N. to act with “a massive investment in clean water and sanitation infrastructure. Such an effort would not just wipe out cholera, but also a host of other water-borne illnesses. Rather than merely get Haiti back to where it was before the outbreak, this effort would push the country ahead.”

The report, “Haiti: Human Security in Danger” was co-written and researched with the Haiti-based National Human Rights Defense Network and the Ecumenical Center for Human Rights and is one of the few such human rights reports on Haiti to be released in the years since the earthquake, despite the renewed international attention on Haiti that followed. In addition to a section on human rights abuses committed by MINUSTAH, including its culpability for the cholera epidemic, the report focuses on the conditions faced by IDPs, whom it describes as having been “Abandoned and left to fend for themselves,” lacking adequate housing and sanitation, safe drinking water, and cholera treatment, and subject to forced eviction and the threat of forced eviction, rape and gender-based violence, and general insecurity. Conditions in Haiti’s prisons are the focus of another section, in which the report notes that an estimated 70 percent of those in prison are in pre-trial detention (this percentage is 92 in the National Prison in Port-au-Prince) and where safe drinking water is also lacking, leading to at least 275 cholera deaths in the prisons since the outbreak began.

The report also examines Haiti’s flawed justice system, and the Haitian National Police (HNP), which it finds lacking in size, competence, and accountability. Still, the report is the latest to recommend a transition from MINUSTAH to the HNP for the purpose of maintaining national security and cut down on crime, saying, “Haiti needs an effective criminal justice system (including sufficient and competent police personnel) to combat organized crime – not a military presence,” but notes – as have previous reports such as this one from the International Crisis Group earlier this year – that plans to bolster and transform the HNP have fallen far behind stated goals, leading to a prolonged mandate for MINUSTAH.


The report also draws attention to recent threats against human rights defenders in Haiti, including BAI Director and prominent human rights attorney Mario Joseph, who has reported that he has been receiving death threats since early this year, following a judge’s proscribing charges Joseph brought against former president Jean-Claude Duvalier for crimes against humanity. The report finds the lack of accountability for Duvalier to “[highlight] the serious shortcomings of the judicial system and its lack of impartiality and independence,” and “contrary to the international obligations of Haiti to investigate serious violations of human rights and prosecute the perpetrators.” The human rights organizations call on the Haitian authorities to “Try and convict …Duvalier on appeal for crimes against humanity committed during his regime.”

While rights abuses by the UN troops and police officers in MINUSTAH have not received the international attention or outrage they warrant (see previous posts here, here and here), the report is not the first human rights study to detail some of the Mission’s transgressions and institutional failings. A 2005 report by the Harvard Law School examined how MINUSTAH had repeatedly fallen short of its goals, and research in November 2004 [PDF] by the University of Miami School of Law found that “MINUSTAH forces, ostensibly there to help the HNP, sometimes complicate and intensify the imprecision and the violence,” and interviewed a shooting victim in the hospital who claimed to have been shot by UN troops while “he was walking to work.” But the FIDH report is significant in its examination of the cholera epidemic and the U.N.’s reluctance to take responsibility as a human rights concern:

FIDH regrets that no mention is made by the Security Council of the responsibility of MINUSTAH in the outbreak of the cholera epidemic in Haiti. That said, the Security Council request to the countries providing MINUSTAH troops to ensure that their nationals responsible for human rights violations in Haiti are brought to justice and convicted is a notable mention

The report also notes MINUSTAH’s past failures to implement part of its current mandate – “to promote and protect human rights” — most notably in IDP camps:

MINUSTAH  failed  to  recognize  the  seriousness  of  human  rights violations  being  committed in  the  camps  and  initially  refused  to  contribute  to  securing  the camps, considering that it was not within its mandate to do so. It was only after a UN vote in June 2010 amending the MINUSTAH mandate that this situation changed.

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