UNITED NATIONS – A U.N. human rights expert strongly criticized the United Nations on Tuesday for denying legal responsibility for the 2010 cholera outbreak in Haiti caused by U.N. peacekeepers, calling it “a disgrace” and urging the world body to issue an apology and accept responsibility.
Philip Alston said in a report submitted to the U.N. General Assembly that “deeply flawed” and unfounded legal advice provided by U.N. lawyers is preventing the organization from accepting responsibility for the outbreak, which has sickened nearly 800,000 Haitians and killed some 9,300.
He said the U.N.’s existing legal approach “of simply abdicating responsibility is morally unconscionable, legally indefensible and politically self-defeating.”
Alston said the good news is that under Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s “courageous leadership” a trust fund aimed at raising at least $400 million to eradicate cholera and help victims has been set up. He urged all countries to contribute.
“The bad news is that the U.N. has still not admitted factual or legal responsibility, and has not offered a legal settlement as required by international law,” he said.
Australian-born Alston, a law professor at New York University, is the U.N.’s independent expert on extreme poverty and human rights. He presented his report to the General Assembly’s human rights committee Tuesday.
Researchers say cholera was first detected in Haiti’s central Artibonite Valley and cite evidence that it was introduced to the country’s biggest river from a U.N. base where Nepalese troops were deployed as part of a peacekeeping operation which has been in the country since 2004. Cholera is endemic in Nepal.
For years the U.N. denied or remained silent on longstanding allegations that it was responsible for the outbreak, while responding to lawsuits in U.S. courts by claiming immunity under a 1946 convention. In August, a U.S. appeals court upheld the United Nations’ immunity from a lawsuit filed on behalf of 5,000 Haitian cholera victims who blame the U.N. for the epidemic.
Secretary-General Ban said immediately after that ruling that he “deeply regrets the suffering” that cholera has caused and “the United Nations has a moral responsibility to the victims.” He announced that the U.N. was working on a package that would provide “material assistance.” Details of that package were announced on Monday.
Alston said there is no reason why the U.N. should not admit legal responsibility because the international convention on immunities and privileges has an exception allowing compensation for “negligence.”
U.N. spokesman Stéphane Dujarric, questioned about the U.N. taking legal responsibility, said: “The organization’s legal position with respect to cholera doesn’t prevent us from taking effective steps to address the issue of cholera in Haiti and in taking a position that has both compassion and solidarity.”
EDITH M. LEDERER