Moving Closer to Justice for the Victims of Cholera in Haiti

Men Anpil, Chay Pa Lou

Haitian cholera victims and diaspora leaders abroad are turning up the pressure on powerful governments around the world, asking them to use their influence to press the UN to provide justice and reparations to the hundreds of thousands who have suffered from the cholera that UN peacekeepers brought to Haiti in 2010. This targeted pressure is showing encouraging signs of new progress—in recent months, several governments have for the first time called for a just response, and UN member states are reportedly in conversation with the UN Secretariat about compensation for the victims.

The pressure on governments is coming from all sides and taking various forms—from personalized appeals to high-level political meetings. This week, victims of cholera in Haiti are delivering over 2,000 personal letters addressed to members of the UN Security Council to the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince. The letters implore the world leaders to support Haitians’ human right to a remedy. For example, cholera survivor Gerald St Fleur wrote in one of the many letters: “It is with great sadness that I am writing this letter. It is an opportunity to remind you that human rights should be respected no matter which country one is from.”

The community groups leading the letter writing campaign explained that “[w]e know that the fate of cholera victims ultimately depends on the willingness of member states of the UN Security Council, who have the power to ensure that the UN lives up to its own principles… We ask you to feel the injustice we have suffered.”

The Haitian diaspora living abroad is also doing their part to call on their governments to hold the UN accountable. Countries that are home to large Haitian diaspora—such as the United States, Canada and France—are some of the most powerful in the world and wield significant influence with the UN.

The United States has a particularly critical role to play in ensuring UN accountability, due to its power within the Security Council, role as a major funder of UN peacekeeping and position in opposing the lawsuit filed by victims in U.S. federal court. Thus far, the U.S. government has sided with the United Nations by defending UN immunity in court and protecting the organization from having to fulfill its legal obligations to cholera victims.

This position has drawn pointed criticisms, in particular from Haitian-American leaders. In July 2015, 154 diaspora groups and community leaders signed onto a letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, stating that “it is imperative for the U.S. government to ensure the UN complies with its legal obligations to install the water and sanitation infrastructure necessary to control cholera and compensate the victims.”

The letter also spoke of the specific toll that the cholera epidemic has taken on diaspora living in the United States, and warned that MINUSTAH’s “refusal to comply with its legal obligations to Haiti’s cholera victims denies it the credibility necessary to effectively promote the rule of law in Haiti.”

The letter is one of the largest Haitian-American coalition letters ever organized.The Haitian-American diaspora has also brought the fight for justice to the media, by hosting radio shows, writing articles, and putting out press releases. For example, Kertch Conze of the Haitian Lawyers Association recently appealed to President Obama to take leadership on the issue in an op-ed in the Miami Herald, noting that “[i]n siding with the U.N. instead of protecting the due-process rights of Haitian and Haitian-American victims, our government, sadly, has chosen to honor impunity.”

When the appeal filed by victims of cholera in the U.S. was heard by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in March, supporters and media packed the courtroom to show support for the victims. The hearing generated significant media attention with the New York Times reporting that judges “seemed sympathetic to the victims,” and renewed energy to engage in out-of-court advocacy. A decision on the appeal is expected shortly.

Haitian-American elected officials have also played an important role in the calls for U.S. leadership at the UN. In 2014, the National Haitian-American Elected Officials Network (NHAEON) wrote a letter led by Massachusetts Senator Linda Dorcena Forry that stressed their “deepest concerns by the United Nations failure to take responsibility for the cholera epidemic occurring in Haiti.” Members of NHAEON have continued to lobby decision-makers, leading meetings with U.S. Congressional Representatives and UN officials.

Diaspora advocacy is also growing outside the United States. In recent weeks, Haitian diaspora groups in Canada launched a new campaign to ask the Canadian government to use its influence to oblige the UN to take responsibility for its epidemic. Over 145 community leaders and organizations sent an open letter in response to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's announcement of Canada’s re-engagement with the UN, stressing the government’s unique opportunity to create a more accountable peacekeeping structure that respects human rights and sovereignty.

The campaign garnered the support of key Canadian political leaders, including several former Canadian Ambassadors to the UN such as Allan Rock, who spoke of the UN’s introduction of cholera to Haiti and its failure to respond justly as two “unpardonable sins.”

As a result of these efforts, governments appear to be taking a new interest in the issue. At the UN Security Council in New York and Human Rights Council in Geneva, several governments made public statements in support of reparations for cholera victims. For example, Malaysia urged the UN to consider remedies and compensation for victims. Importantly, the Haitian Ambassador in Geneva welcomed a recommendation by the UN’s human rights expert in Haiti that the UN promptly establish a commission to provide reparations to victims of cholera. These statements by UN member states have in turn spurred several candidates for the next Secretary-General to speak in favor of justice. As Secretary-General Ban’s term comes to an end this year, renewed UN leadership may bring new opportunities for justice.

At this crucial juncture, the Haitian diaspora has a historic opportunity to increase the pressure on the UN and make the vision of cholera justice a reality. If more and more governments support a just UN response, the UN will eventually have to heed their calls, and the vision for justice for cholera victims will become a reality.

Beatrice Lindstrom is a lawyer with the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti and represents the victims of the cholera epidemic in their suits in US courts.