Two years after the UN promised to do better, the victims of the UN cholera epidemic in Haiti are still fighting to make the organization keep its promises. On December 1 2016, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon publicly apologized to the Haitian people for the UN’s role in causing a devastating cholera epidemic that has claimed more than 10,000 lives and infected more than 800,000 people since 2010. Promising to right the UN’s wrongs in Haiti, Ban Ki-moon rolled out a $400 million plan to control cholera and provide assistance to victims.
Yet eight years into the epidemic and two years since this grand promise the UN is still refusing to keep its promises or honour its legal obligations. The UN’s response to cholera has always been one of charity, never a program of the justice that it is tasked with promoting globally. Ban Ki-moon, choosing his lawyers’ advice over the UN Charter’s directives, carefully avoided any admission of legal responsibility. None of the plan’s promises were enforceable by the victims. Two years later, in a textbook demonstration of the importance of accountability and the rule of law, none of the promises have been kept.
The UN had promised to place “victims at the centre of the work” of its $200 million victim assistance plan, and to consult with them in developing the package. It promised to consider not only community-based assistance but also “payment of money to the families of those individuals who died of cholera.”
Victims took the UN at its word, and prepared for the consultations. They met in groups to study and discuss the pros and cons of different approaches. They participated in victim committees and consultation training sessions, and brought the nuanced discussions home to their villages for more discussion.
In the meantime, the UN’s limited fundraising efforts yielded limited results, so the promised material assistance project was replaced with a “pilot consultation” in a single municipality, Mirebalais. The UN’s public comments on victim assistance discussed only community projects, with individual compensation apparently off the table.
The UN declined to include the victims who had prepared for the process in the Mirebalais pilot. Instead, a few selected cholera victims were included in larger focus groups of local political, religious and community leaders. The consultation process went ahead without transparency as to how it was being conducted and without clarity as to how these victims were selected. Reports from those meetings indicate that individual compensation was not presented as an option, and that the voices of the cholera victims – who contracted the disease in the first place because they were too poor to afford clean water – were predictably marginalized among the discussions of the leaders, who arrived with their own agendas for community development.
This obviously flawed process produced the conclusion it was designed to produce: that Haitians wanted community projects, not individual compensation. The UN now intends to expand on this “success” in other heavily affected communities. So the victims need to keep fighting for justice. As many of these victims often state, “it is not for the wrongdoer to decide what is justice for the victim.”
On the anniversary of the introduction of cholera, cholera victims in the town of Mirebalais—where the epidemic started–commemorated the day by organizing a requiem Mass to memorialize those who died from the disease. Victims then marched to the former UN base that recklessly discharged cholera-laden waste into Haiti’s largest river system, to lay flowers near the river.
To this day, the UN cholera continues to kill and sicken Haitians. Beyond the ongoing threat, the long-term consequences persist for those who have already been sick or lost loved ones. Crushing burial costs, loss of livelihoods, death of breadwinners, and ensuing accrual of debts has devastated those who already struggled to meet their basic needs.
This latest commemoration of cholera victims, so many years since the outbreak, is the utmost demonstration of victim perseverance. Despite the devastating economic impacts and struggles that victims face, they have continued to mobilize for justice. Together with organizations like the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) and MOLEGHAF, they come out to protest month after month to remind the UN of its obligations to provide justice and reparations to those who have suffered so much from cholera. Victims have also filed claims through the UN’s legal process as well as a class action lawsuit in New York through their legal representatives the BAI and the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti (IJDH). On Human Rights Day in 2015, they delivered over 2,000 handwritten letters to the UN’s peacekeeping headquarters in Port-Au-Prince. In 2017, victims told their individual stories in a powerful video message to the UN.
Victims are not alone in rejecting this effort at replacing justice with charity. In June, over 100 US Congressional leaders called on the Secretary-General to ensure a just response to Haiti cholera victims. The following month an open letter signed by 60 human rights organizations worldwide to the UN Secretary-General, including Amnesty International and the International Service for Human Rights, opposed what they saw as problematic consultations of victims. It criticized the UN’s adoption of a charity-based as opposed to rights-based model that appeared to abandon the individual payment approach.
Charitable community projects are not a substitute for the remedies that cholera victims are entitled to by law, and victims are not giving up the fight. The UN’s grand promises to cholera victims two years ago will only be effective if it actually listens to victims, respects their perspectives and allows them to influence the development of policy. As the UN undertakes to review its efforts in Mirebalais, it is not too late to recognize that justice will only be served when victims are truly placed at the centre.