The United Nations has failed again as an international institution, and it should pay for causing an epidemic of almost biblical proportions in Haiti. Not many people are aware of the significant epidemiological trouble facing Haiti: since October 2010, the small Caribbean nation has battled cholera, and the disease is laying waste to the country. The most insidious issue, however, is that the UN caused the problem through gross negligence. Cholera, scientific name vibrio cholera, is a nasty disease that spreads through contaminated water supplies from feces. It causes horrific watery diarrhea, which leads to more contamination and spreads the disease faster.
Haiti saw a rapid increase of cholera patients in October 2010 beginning in Meille, which has a UN camp nearby. Their base at the Meille Tributary held dreadful sanitation conditions: the septic system was overflowing with fecal matter. Jonathan Katz, describing the base, wrote that “The back of the base smelled like a toilet had exploded. Reeking, dark liquid flowed out of a broken pipe, toward the river, from next to what the soldiers said were latrines.” The tributary ran into the Artibonite River that horizontally cuts through the middle of Haiti, tainting the water supply for hundreds of thousands of people.
Now, 700,000 Haitians are infected and 8,500 have died. Hospitals did not have adequate amount of rehydration salts or “cholera cots,” beds with holes in the middle of them to dispose of the diarrhea.
Genetic testing by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention has matched the strain of cholera in Haiti to the strain from Nepal. Nepal saw an outbreak the summer before the UN deployed peace keepers from there to the island country, and the UN did not test its soldiers before redeployment.
Even though the UN has obstinately refused to accept responsibility, that does not mean Haitians are not fighting back. A joint effort by the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) and the Bueau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) have utilized legal means to receive compensation. The IJDH and BAI issued a petition to the UN demanding an apology and compensation for sanitation and clean water projects. UN General Secretary Ban Ki Moon refused to accept the petition. Now, the IJDH and BAI are desperately trying to bring relief to Haiti by suing the UN through the US District Court in New York. The American government supported the UN, however, and argued that the case should be dismissed.
All of this is a complete disgrace for the United Nation and the United States. The United States should immediately change course and begin supporting the BAI and IJDH. It is understandable why the government opposes this suit: foreign policy and military actions by the US have sometimes had disastrous consequences, and it would be imprudent to create precedent for suing states or transnational organizations when something goes wrong. However, this case is completely different than, say, American involvement in Iraq or other countries. Unintended consequences are always a concern when formulating policy, and states should not be responsible for them. However, there is ample precedent in moral philosophy and international law for those states that ignore problems–or purposefully cause them.
Gross negligence is absolutely punishable, and should be punished. Just as states are held responsible for targeting civilians or using illegal weapons, the UN should be held responsible for ignoring the problem it has caused in Haiti. The organization and its peacekeepers did nothing to prevent this travesty, and their conscious inaction makes them fully culpable.
America can begin supporting the Haitian cause through two avenues. The first is by offering legal and pecuniary support to the IJDH and BAI in their pursuit in the American courts. Neither organization has the funds to properly engage in the legal battle necessary to achieve their goal. DOJ lawyers could easily help them achieve their objectives and, at the very least, could assuage the exorbitant costs of collecting information and going through the courts. The UN, however, will not necessarily have to obey the US court’s decision if compensation is ordered.
The second is through the UN proper: UN Ambassador Samantha Power should begin introducing resolutions and fighting for an apology and compensation. This would be a tough battle within the UN as an organization, but she could gain support from developing countries that have been deleteriously affected by the UN. Other great powers may also be reluctant to support a US sponsored resolution due to their own foreign policy failures. Resolutions in the General Assembly are not binding, so the US would have to go through the Security Council. Russia and China, America’s typical opposition, could easily veto such action. To increase pressure on the UN, Congress could also pass a law stopping payment of funds to the UN until they at least accept responsibility for the outbreak.
To properly deal with the sanitation and water issues in Haiti, the UN would have to give them $30 billion. This cost, though, would be incredibly prohibitive: the UN’s entire budget is about a third of this. Therefore, a negotiated settlement would be necessary, and payments would have to happen over a multi-year period. America could continue its support by helping administer the funds, creating a temporary agency for these UN funds made up of experts on development to administer and supervise their transfer. Pumping billions of dollars into their economy could also help Haiti’s growth. The funds should employ locals to construct the necessary sanitation infrastructure, which would have reverberating effects on the Haitian economy.
Recovering compensation for Haiti and securing a public apology by the UN should be a paramount issue for the US government. This is moral and political failure by the UN further demonstrates its inefficient, unproductive, and ineffective nature. As an organization, the UN has rarely achieved any substantial results and has become increasingly hypocritical on human rights issues. Here is a chance for the US to shows its commitment to justice and for the UN to receive absolution of its sins.