In addition to rejecting scientific proof, U.N. officials have repeatedly denied their legal and moral obligations in Haiti. In a recent letter to the U.S. Congress, U.N. Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon noted that Haitian claims for redress are not receivable under international law, as the U.N. has legal immunity.
Ironically, however, the secretary-general cited the same treaty—the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations—that requires the organization to “make provisions for appropriate modes of settlement” for claims that arise from its missions.
While the U.N. does have legal immunity in very specific instances, it does not have carte-blanche impunity. Treaty law requires that when U.N. missions harm innocent bystanders, the organization must provide a forum for victims to seek justice—even if that forum is not a court of law.
Along with its standing responsibilities under treaty law, the U.N. accepted obligations to respect the human rights of Haitians, including their right to health, when it signed a SOFA with Haiti in 2004. Among other guarantees, this agreement explicitly promised to create a “standing claims commission” to review “any dispute or claim of a private-law character”—meaning, claims arising from injuries or contract violations attributable to the U.N.
Yet the U.N. has not established a claims commission in Haiti. In fact, our research shows that, while the U.N. has promised claims commissions, if needed, in over 30 SOFAs since 1990, the organization has not established a single commission. Given reports in several countries, including Haiti, of wrongdoing and negligence by peacekeepers, the failure to establish claims commissions has left countless victims without access to justice.
The U.N. has suggested that accepting accountability for the cholera epidemic would prove a slippery, dangerous slope. It claims that owning up to its deeds would complicate and possibly compromise MINUSTAH and other peacekeeping missions, set an untenable precedent for addressing the consequences of peacekeeping around the world, and pose a large financial burden.
However, these are inadequate reasons to deny responsibility. We argue here and in our report that the outcomes of the U.N. apologizing for the cholera epidemic and establishing a claims commission, looking to models like the September 11th Victims Compensation Fund and U.N. Compensation Commission in Iraq, would in fact improve its operations, set a stronger precedent for future accountability in peacekeeping missions, and enhance the U.N.’s overall legitimacy.
The U.N. has played an important role in Haiti’s post-earthquake recovery effort, yet it has also caused great harm. The organization’s ongoing unwillingness to hold itself accountable to the victims of cholera violates existing obligations under international law.
Moreover, by failing to lead by example, the U.N. is undercutting its core aims of promoting international peace, law, and human rights. As the third anniversary of the Haitian epidemic approaches this October, it is time for the U.N. to live up to its mandate.
The UN's failure in Haiti is also a failure of its health arm, the World Health Organization. Poor countries in particular should be hesitant to put all their trust in an organization that falls silent about such a grave injury to public health.
While it's encouraging to see the growing support for Haiti in this sorry mess, and striking to see the absence of support for the UN's position, it will take a lot more pressure to turn the UN around.