104 Members of Congress Call for the UN to Take Responsibility for Cholera

July 18, 2012

Haiti’s cholera infection and death rates show an alarming recent increase, with official statistics reporting 290 deaths and nearly 40,000 cases in May and June alone, as the rainy season returned. Pressure continues to build for the United Nations to take responsibility for causing the cholera outbreak, which has now killed over 7,418 people and infected over 579,014. Last week, Hollywood took notice of the issue, with some 90 celebrities attending a screening of the Olivia Wilde-produced documentary film, “Baseball in the Time of Cholera” directed by David Darg and Bryn Mooser, and many urged action on the issue via Twitter, leading to the hashtag #undeny becoming a top trend for much of the day last Thursday.

Today, the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, which features prominently in the film, took “Baseball” to Congress with a screening. The move is well-timed, as 104 members of Congress just released a letter addressed to U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice calling on her to “to strongly encourage the United Nations to take a leadership role in addressing this catastrophic public health crisis,” specifically by urging “UN authorities to support efficient treatment and prevention of the epidemic and to help Haiti acquire adequate water and sanitation infrastructure.”

The letter, which was circulated by Rep. John Conyers (D – MI) states:

As cholera was brought to Haiti due to the actions of the UN, we believe that it is imperative for the UN to now act decisively to control the cholera epidemic. UN authorities should work with Haiti’s government and the international community to confront and, ultimately, eliminate this deadly disease from Haiti and the rest of the island of Hispaniola.  A failure to act will not only lead to countless more deaths: it will undermine the crucial effort to reconstruct Haiti and will pose a permanent public health threat to the populations of neighboring nations.

According to the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO), Haiti is one of the most underserved countries in the world in terms of water and sanitation infrastructure. These infrastructural weaknesses have made Haiti particularly susceptible to water-borne disease. Cholera had not been present in Haiti for over a century prior to October 2010, making Haitians ‘immunologically naïve’ and even more vulnerable to the disease.

On January 12th of this year, the presidents of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, joined by UN agencies PAHO, World Health Organization and UNICEF and the U.S. CDC, appealed to donor countries to honor pledges and provide funds for water and sanitation infrastructure.  However, there has been little response to this appeal from the international community.  Moreover, with the onset of the rainy season, the number of deaths from cholera is rising once again.

Accordingly, we call upon you to urge UN authorities to play a central role in addressing the cholera crisis.  First, by helping ensure that resources are in place to provide adequate treatment and prevention of the disease in the short term. Secondly, by taking the lead in helping Haiti and the rest of the island of Hispaniola acquire the necessary funding to develop the water and sanitation infrastructure needed to effectively control the cholera epidemic.

Finally, we ask that you encourage UN authorities and all donor governments involved in the effort to fight cholera to intensify their cooperation with the Haitian state and people through capacity-building and the active inclusion of government representatives in decision-making and through the regular consultation of civil society actors. [The full letter is available here.]

The 104 members of Congress are the latest to join a growing chorus calling for the UN to take responsibility and ensure funding for Haiti’s water and sanitation infrastructure. The New York Times made the same recommendations in an editorial May 12, thousands of individuals have voiced the same in online petitions, and of course these are the same demands made by the 5,000 Haitian victims of cholera who filed claims with the UN in November. But over 630 days after cholera was first detected in Haiti, the UN has yet to apologize for introducing the disease.

A new UN document, “Draft articles on the responsibility of international organizations”, which was cited by Ruth Wedgwood, Edward B. Burling Professor of International Law and Diplomacy at SAIS, at this morning’s briefing, could pressure the UN itself to act if it is eventually approved by the General Assembly. Reportedly already approved by the UN’s International Law Commission, it includes, among other provisions:

Article 35

An international organization responsible for an internationally wrongful act is under an obligation to make restitution, that is, to re-establish the situation which existed before the wrongful act was committed, provided and to the extent that restitution:

(a) is not materially impossible;

(b) does not involve a burden out of all proportion to the benefit deriving from restitution instead of compensation.

Article 36

1. The international organization responsible for an internationally wrongful act is under an obligation to compensate for the damage caused thereby, insofar as such damage is not made good by restitution.

2. The compensation shall cover any financially assessable damage including loss of profits insofar as it is established.

Article 37

1. The international organization responsible for an internationally wrongful act is under an obligation to give satisfaction for the injury caused by that act insofar as it cannot be made good by restitution or compensation.

2. Satisfaction may consist in an acknowledgement of the breach, an expression of regret, a formal apology or another appropriate modality.

3. Satisfaction shall not be out of proportion to the injury and may not take a form humiliating to the responsible international organization.

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