UN's own expert calls its actions over Haiti cholera outbreak 'a disgrace'

Human rights special rapporteur says UN’s refusal to accept responsibility for 2010 outbreak ‘makes a mockery’ of efforts to hold others to account

The United Nations’ refusal to accept responsibility for the devastating cholera outbreak that has claimed more than 9,000 lives in Haiti has been branded a “disgrace” by the organisation’s own human rights special rapporteur.

Human rights groups working with victims had reacted with jubilation earlier this year following the UN’s first tacit admission that it was to blame for the outbreak after doggedly refusing to address how its peacekeepers brought the disease to Haiti in 2010.

However, in a scathing report (pdf) to the UN general assembly, the organisation’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, said that flawed and unfounded legal advice provided by the UN lawyers was preventing it from accepting responsibility for the outbreak.

“The UN’s explicit and unqualified denial of anything other than a moral responsibility is a disgrace,” Alston said. “If the United Nations bluntly refuses to hold itself accountable for human rights violations, it makes a mockery of its efforts to hold governments and others to account.”

Alston accused the UN’s Office of Legal Affairs (OLA) for coming up with a “patently artificial and wholly unfounded legal pretence for insisting that the organisation must not take legal responsibility for what it has done”.

The criticism comes as the administration of the outgoing UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, is moving to provide compensation for the first time to victims of the outbreak. The UN plans to make cash payments from a proposed $400m (£328m) cholera response package, the New York Times reported.

Alston added that the OLA’s approach “has been cloaked in secrecy: there has been no satisfactory official explanation of the policy, no public attempt to justify it, and no known assessment of its consequences for future cases. This goes directly against the principles of accountability, transparency and the rule of law that the UN itself promotes globally.”

Peacekeepers who were relocated from Nepal to Haiti in 2010 in the wake of a major earthquake imported the deadly cholera bacterium with them. Studies have found that the UN troops could have been screened for the illness, and the disaster averted, for as little as $2,000.

Alston said the UN’s legal position appears to be largely explained by the approach of the US, the main contributor to the UN’s peacekeeping budget.

“Despite numerous requests to do so, the United States itself has never publicly stated its legal position on the responsibility of the UN for causing cholera in Haiti,” he added.

“Instead, it seems to have pressed the UN to adopt the position frequently taken by lawyers in the US that responsibility should never be accepted voluntarily, since it could complicate future litigation. But this rationale is completely inapplicable to the UN, which enjoys absolute immunity from suit in national courts and whose reputation depends almost entirely on being seen to act with integrity.”

The special rapporteur said that the current stance of the UN’s lawyers ensures that it would never admit its responsibility for introducing cholera. “And avoiding legal responsibility hinders the UN from learning lessons and making sure that the fatal mistakes made in Haiti are not repeated elsewhere.”

Ban’s office said in a statement earlier this year that the organisation had decided to step up its efforts to fight cholera in one of the world’s poorest countries. A reference to the UN’s “involvement in the initial outbreak” was greeted as a breakthrough by groups working with cholera victims.

Ban appeared to have been bounced into making a clearer recognition of responsibility than ever before by the advent of a draft report by Alston into how the UN handled the crisis. Alston had also been one of five experts working for the UN who earlier this year wrote a heavily critical letter to Ban in which the secretary general’s resistance to accepting any responsibility was torn apart.


Ben Quinn

The GuardianTramp

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