Foreign Policy in the Time of Cholera

by Adam Houston, Peggy Chateauneuf, and Beatrice Lindstrom

The ongoing cholera epidemic in Haiti is a disaster. Introduced into Haiti through the shocking negligence of the United Nations, the disease has resulted in over 8,500 deaths since October 2010. The UN has not only failed to remedy the damage, it has not even apologized for the harm it has caused. As a result, Haitian and Haitian-American victims initiated legal action against the UN in U.S. court in October 2013. Caught between support for the principle of the UN’s legal immunity and recognition of the victims’ rights to access justice are longstanding American foreign policy goals of enhancing political stability and promoting the rule of law in Haiti. One year after the lawsuit was filed, this tension came to a head on October 23, when oral arguments by the U.S. government in support of UN immunity, and the Haitian plaintiffs in favor of UN accountability, were heard in Federal Court.

Despite overwhelming evidence that reckless waste disposal on a UN peacekeeping base sparked the epidemic, the UN has repeatedly rebuffed requests for remedies. In violation of its treaty obligations, the UN has also refused to establish a claims commission to hear and settle victims’ claims outside of court, thereby failing to fulfill key duties counterbalancing its right to immunity in domestic courts. Maintaining the position that it need not respond to domestic lawsuits, the UN requested that the U.S. intervene in its stead. The U.S. acquiesced by filing a court brief that supports the total immunity of the UN and advocates for the dismissal of the case. In so doing, it has missed a critical opportunity to further its stated foreign policy goals.

No matter the outcome of the hearing, the government’s choice to intervene does not support U.S. policy aims for three reasons. First, the government’s actions have direct repercussions for those plaintiffs who are American citizens, and whose constitutionally protected right of access to courts is threatened. It is unclear what benefits justify a wholesale denial of this fundamental right.

Second, blocking judicial remedies further prolongs the effects of the epidemic itself. UN press releases trumpeting anti-cholera initiatives are not supported with anywhere near the $2.2 billion needed to eradicate cholera in Haiti—current funding is at 10%. Meanwhile, the UN continues to invest $500 million per year in MINUSTAH, the peacekeeping mission in Haiti, even though the country has not had a war in decades, and has one of the lowest homicide rates in the region.

Finally, the U.S. government’s position is at cross-purposes with its interests in promoting human rights and the rule of law at home and abroad. Victims only took legal action because the UN ignored its legal and moral obligations. The UN’s insistence on holding itself above the law damages its credibility and effectiveness as a promoter of human rights and the rule of law in Haiti and worldwide. By offering unqualified support for UN impunity, the U.S. similarly harms its own credibility in promoting these goals.

The counterproductive nature of the U.S.’s approach is summarized succinctly in a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry on behalf of the 24,000 members of the New York City Bar Association, stating that “[i]t is in the legal and foreign policy interests of the United States to promote the rule of law, international law and compliance with international treaty obligations, including by the UN itself.” Prominent members of the UN, U.S. Congress, and the National Haitian American Elected Officials Network have voiced similar concerns. Two additional lawsuits were filed against the UN in March, making it clear that the UN cannot solve this by sweeping it under the rug. It is time for the U.S. to properly account for these concerns in its own decisions.

The necessity of having sufficient legal immunity to prevent undue interference with UN operations was understood at the time the organization was founded, when such a provision was included in the UN Charter. It was also clear, however, that such immunities should be granted only “as are necessary for the fulfillment of its purposes.” At the core of these purposes are the principles of justice and international law, and promoting and encouraging respect for human rights. The U.S. may have sound reasons to support the broader principle of immunity, but such support must be balanced so the scales of justice do not tip into impunity.

To further rule of law in Haiti and around the world, it is imperative that the U.S. complement its support for UN immunity with a forceful public statement reminding the UN of its legal obligation to establish a claims procedure where victims’ claims can be heard impartially. Such action would make a clear statement to the UN, and to the world, that privilege must always be balanced with responsibility.

About the Author

All three authors are members of the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti (IJDH). Adam Houston is a Legal Fellow focusing on global health and human rights. Peggy Chateauneuf is an advocacy intern with a background in political science. Beatrice Lindstrom is a Staff Attorney.

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