No Immunity from Cholera

How to Hold the United Nations to Account

Jahbahcon Francois, who suffers from cholera, rests in the arms of his mother at the Cholera Treatment Center run by the Haitian Ministry of Public Health and Population (MSPP) in collaboration with Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in Port-au-Prince, April 17, 2015. Andres Martinez Casares / Reuters

Pressure is mounting on the United States to push the United Nations to respond more effectively to the cholera epidemic that broke out in Haiti in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake. The epidemic has reportedly killed at least 9,200 and, by some estimates, perhaps as many as three times that number. Hundreds of thousands more have been infected. And the devastation isn’t over; Haiti continues to struggle to contain a disease that it had not previously faced for over a century.

Evidence points to United Nations peacekeepers as the most likely source of the disease in Haiti. An expert panel commissioned by the United Nations itself pointed the finger at the “haphazard” disposal of human waste at a UN base close to the epicenter of the outbreak, near a tributary to Haiti’s largest river—the primary water source for tens of thousands of people. Most recently, news outlets reported that an internal UN memo stated that improper disposal of human waste was a widespread problem at other UN bases across Haiti as well.

Despite this evidence, however, the United Nations has refused to accept responsibility for the outbreak and has resisted efforts to hold itself accountable. To date, the United States has supported the organization in its resistance. However, several groups, including the New York City Bar Association, have called on Washington to take concrete steps to ensure that the United Nations provides a mechanism that victims can use to fairly settle their claims against the organization. In a letter sent to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry last week, a bipartisan group of 158 members of Congress urged the State Department to “immediately and unreservedly exercise its leadership” to ensure “a more just UN response.”

Ban Ki-moon leaves a home he visited during a trip to the cholera-afflicted rural village of Los Palmas
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon leaves a home he visited during a trip to the cholera-afflicted rural village of Los Palmas July 14, 2014. Together with Haiti's Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe, Ban launched a "Total Sanitation Campaign" to promote efforts to alleviate a cholera epidemic that has killed thousands and has been linked to the U.N.'s own peacekeepers. Marie Arago / Reuters
Victims of cholera have brought suit against the United Nations in federal court in New York, where the body is headquartered, and the case is currently being appealed. UN spokespeople claim that the organization is protected from suit under a 1946 international convention that grants

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