To build a more equal global system, the UN General Assembly must first turn to remedying the UN’s own past human rights violations
As the United Nations (UN) General Assembly, the main deliberative and policy-making body of the UN, meets this month to address and debate the most pressing issues around the globe, it must finally ensure reparations to survivors of human rights violations in Haiti who continue to live without justice and restitution and for which the UN bears responsibility.
The overall theme for the meetings includes revitalizing the UN and respecting the rights of people. UN Secretary-General Guterres wants us to re-imagine the international system in the wake of COVID-19 and to address inequality by reforming global institutions like the UN to ensure power, wealth, and opportunity are shared more fairly. While these ambitions are commendable, the UN’s rhetoric does not line up with its (in)action. Among its other moral abdications, the UN has failed to take meaningful responsibility and offer restitution for human rights violations in Haiti, most notably with respect to a deadly epidemic that it caused and sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) of vulnerable women and girls perpetrated by its peacekeeping troops. The UN’s calls for a fairer global system and respect for human rights cannot hold water when they are failing to deliver on accountability to populations it is meant to serve.
The many challenges facing Haiti in the fulfilment of its population’s human rights are rooted in the policies of, and engagement by, foreign states and non-state actors. Of major concern is that foreign actors often fail to take responsibility where they don’t deliver on their promises and where their work directly causes more suffering.
For example, the UN’s fifteen-year long peacekeeping presence in Haiti that ended in 2019 resulted in several human rights violations. In October 2010, ten months after a catastrophic earthquake, UN peacekeepers introduced cholera to Haiti, which had not previously had the disease. The result was one of the largest and deadliest cholera outbreaks of the 21st century that caused at least 10,000 deaths and infected almost a million. Families were further ravaged by the financial burdens of seeking medical care and losing breadwinners. In what one senior UN human rights official has called “the single greatest example of hypocrisy in our 75-year history,” the UN failed to accept legal responsibility for the epidemic, resulting in a pitiful response that has provided no compensation to victims, in violation of their internationally recognized right to effective remedy.
The UN’s failure to provide redress for cholera victims has meant that Haiti was still recovering from cholera when COVID-19 hit and when, on August 14 of this year, a 7.2 magnitude earthquake struck its southern peninsula. The continuing devastating impacts of the epidemic on thousands of Haitian families has contributed to the country’s extreme vulnerability to man-made and natural disasters.
Moreover, during UN peacekeeping missions in Haiti, its personnel engaged in widespread SEA of women and children. Perpetrators generally returned without facing criminal charges or undertaking support obligations for any resulting children, leaving vulnerable Haitian women and girls to care for the children they fathered. Sadly, this represents a broader pattern at the UN: its internal oversight body’s latest evaluation of SEA by UN peacekeepers found that even as reported allegations of SEA rose by 247 percent across the UN system between 2017 and 2019, criminal accountability for UN personnel remained “largely unachieved.” In my experience as part of a team of human rights advocates and litigators who have pursued child support cases on behalf of victims of UN SEA in Haiti, the UN has also failed to provide victims with effective remedies or to otherwise adequately support their efforts to seek justice and child support.
If the General Assembly is serious about meeting its objectives at this year’s session, it must prioritize ensuring effective remedies for victims of past UN violations. The UN should heed IJDH’s call at the Secretary-General Candidate Dialogue Informal Meeting of the General Assembly’s 75th session to prioritize combating SEA across the UN system, which Secretary-General Guterres pledged to do at the beginning of his tenure four years ago, and has yet to actualize. The UN must likewise uphold its obligations to facilitate paternity and child support claims and re-envision its response to cholera victims in Haiti by vindicating their right to effective remedy. Until the UN tackles its own glaring failures to remedy human rights violations for which it is responsible, its efforts to build a more equal system in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic will ring hollow.