Caribbean Journal, March 1, 2013
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Less than a week after cholera began its violent spread throughout Haiti, a U.N. military base in the central plateau became the prime suspect for having introduced the bacteria. The U.N. was quick to shoot this theory down, claiming the base met international standards. Days later, journalists found sewage tanks and latrines overflowing, with the resulting black liquid flowing into a tributary of Haiti’s largest river. Still, the U.N. didn’t hesitate to defend itself; the head of the U.N. troops (known as MINUSTAH), said that it was “really unfair to accuse the U.N. for bringing cholera into Haiti.” But the evidence kept mounting; in January 2011 a scientific journal lent further credence to the theory, in July another, and in August yet another. Even the U.N.’s own investigation into the outbreak found that the U.N. base was the likely source, though the results were obfuscated by blaming the spread on a “confluence of factors.” In the meantime, Haitians continued to die. By the end of January 2011, just over 3 months after cholera’s introduction, the official death toll was over 4,300. All the while the U.N. maintained its innocence.
In November 2011, over a year after the bacteria’s introduction, and with the death toll pushing 7,000, the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti and the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux filed a claim on behalf of over 5,000 victims of cholera. The U.N. troops have immunity from Haitian courts and the standing claims commission that it was supposed to set up was never established (nor has it been in any country where the U.N. operates). Therefore, the advocates took the claim straight to the U.N., seeking an apology, compensation for the victims and for the U.N. to fund the needed water and sanitation infrastructure to rid Haiti of cholera for good. It was a historic chance to right a wrong and provide meaningful support to Haiti, which would save thousands of lives each year.
After 15 months of dodging, delaying and outright lying, the U.N. finally responded on February 21, 2013. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a brief statement, saying the claims were “not receivable” under Section 29 of the 1946 Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations. As legal blogger Kristen Boon put it, “The upshot of this communication is that the claimants have no venue to pursue their case. The U.N.’s decision cannot be appealed. Moreover, if the UN were sued in a national court, it would assert its privileges and immunities which would shield it from jurisdiction.” Forget trying to refute the scientific evidence that they introduced the disease -- who needs to do that when you’ve got immunity?
Earlier that same day the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a statement calling for action; “Such systematic violations of rights must not remain unaddressed,” while adding that “All those Haitians who suffered such abuses have a right to see justice is done.” But that plea wasn’t to the secretary-general about providing justice for cholera victims. It was urging the Haitian courts to move forward with the prosecution of Haiti’s ex-dictator Jean Claude Duvalier, who had been called to court. On a day when the U.N. exercised its own impunity, it was calling on Haiti to end Duvalier’s. The hypocrisy was not lost on many.
But this hypocrisy is nothing new, and it extends far beyond the U.N.’s responsibility for introducing cholera; in fact it’s been a defining feature of its time in Haiti. In the nine years since MINUSTAH has been in Haiti, troops have killed civilians, raped young men, impregnated underage girls and been involved in child prostitution. In none of these cases have the guilty parties faced a Haitian court. Part of MINUSTAH’s mandate in Haiti is ostensibly to strengthen the rule of law, support the Haitian justice system and help protect human rights. Talk about setting a poor example -- it’s no wonder that polls find a majority of Haitians want MINUSTAH to leave Haiti and to compensate victims of cholera.
In a 2005 raid, MINUSTAH shot over a dozen civilians, firing over 22,000 rounds in 7 hours. In 2007, over 100 Sri Lankan troops were found to be soliciting prostitution, including from underage children. They were sent home, but it remains unclear if they ever were held truly accountable. Journalists have documented a number of cases where MINUSTAH troops have fathered children with Haitian women and left them behind with no support. There is the case of Gérard Jean-Gilles, who died inside of a MINUSTAH base. The U.N. said it was suicide, but when a Haitian judge tried to investigate, he declared that, “The U.N. is blocking the Haitian justice system.” Four Uruguayan soldiers were repatriated in 2011 after being caught on video sexually abusing a young man. In 2012, three Pakistanis were found guilty of raping a 14-year old boy; MINUSTAH was accused of trying to cover up the crime. In none of these instances did the accused ever face a Haitian court or serve a sentence in Haiti. In many of these cases there has been no punishment at all.
Pressed about the many cases of abuse, the Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General in Haiti, Mariano Fernández Amunátegui, stated, “They are outrageous and totally unacceptable, and they are severely punished. Impunity does not prevail.” But what the recent decision on cholera, and the last nine years of abuses show, is that when it comes to the U.N. in Haiti, impunity does in fact prevail. If the U.N. wants to strengthen the rule of law and professionalize the police force, they should lead by example and start with themselves.
Jake Johnston is an international researcher at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. He writes on Haiti-related issues for the blog Relief and Reconstruction Watch.