December 10, 2014
His Excellency Prince Zeid Ra’ad Zeid Al-Hussein
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)
52 rue des Pâquis
CH-1201 Geneva, Switzerland
Dear High Commissioner,
We write to you as a diverse group of human rights organizations, academics, and experts concerned about the ongoing cholera epidemic in Haiti and the refusal of the United Nations (UN) to provide an effective remedy to the epidemic’s victims. On this Human Rights Day, we respectfully urge you as the High Commissioner for Human Rights to build on the work of your predecessor, Navanethem Pillay, and other UN human rights experts by calling on Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to respect cholera victims’ human right to a remedy.
Cholera broke out in Haiti in October 2010 for the first time in the country’s recorded history. It has become the world’s largest single-country epidemic, affecting approximately 7% of the Haitian population. Extensive evidence shows that cholera was introduced to Haiti by peacekeepers stationed on the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). The peacekeepers were stationed at a MINUSTAH base that discharged raw sewage into Haiti’s principal river system. Despite the evidence, however, the UN has repeatedly refused to acknowledge its role in introducing cholera to Haiti, and it has refused to provide victims any form of redress.
As of October 2014, the official death toll from cholera has risen to 8,647 and the number of those infected has risen to 711,442. The epidemic is a serious threat to life and a fundamental barrier to the realization of human rights in Haiti, including the rights to life, health, clean water, sanitation, and a healthy environment. In July 2014, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon took the important step of admitting that the UN has a “moral responsibility” to respond to the epidemic, yet his words have not been supported by adequate action. To this day, the majority of Haitians lack access to clean water, and there has been little improvement to the country’s sanitation infrastructure. Moreover, victims and victims’ families have been left without access to any form of remedy.
In November 2011, 5,000 victims filed claims with the UN in accordance with international treaties that require the UN to provide a dispute resolution mechanism to individuals alleging harm as a result of its operations. Victims petitioned for remedies in the form of clean water and sanitation infrastructure to control the epidemic, fair compensation for their losses, and a public acceptance of responsibility. Additionally, they requested that the UN establish a standing claims commission to hear the claims, as required by the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that governs MINUSTAH’s operations in Haiti. In February 2013, the UN dismissed the claims as “not receivable” without providing further explanation. Following the UN’s refusal to consider victims’ claims or to establish a Standing Claims Commission, victims filed three lawsuits against the UN in United States federal courts.
The UN’s refusal to provide redress to victims has become a growing concern among several of your colleagues. Your predecessor, Navanethem Pillay, publicly supported “the call that victims … of cholera be provided with compensation.” Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation Catarina de Albuquerque has also emphasized the need “to ensure the alleged victims’ right to a remedy, including compensation” and called on the UN “to establish appropriate accountability mechanisms.” UN Independent Expert on the Situation of Human Rights in Haiti Gustavo Gallón has similarly urged the UN to compensate cholera victims, stating that “[t]he United Nations should be the first to honour these [Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparation for Victims of Violations of International Human Rights and Humanitarian Law].” Recently, former UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, Stephen Lewis, stated in a speech, “I would want to plead with the senior leadership of the UN to reverse their policy on cholera … to apologize, abandon the insistence on immunity, settle the claims.”
Your colleagues’ statements demonstrate a shared understanding among human rights experts that the UN has an obligation to provide the cholera victims a fair hearing, and that its refusal to do so violates that obligation as well as the victims’ human right to a remedy. The right to an effective remedy is a fundamental human right recognized in several human rights instruments. This right is crucial not only for cholera victims; it is also crucial to preserve the legitimacy of the UN, which has taken on specific obligations to ensure that this right is protected.
As more and more human rights experts speak out in support of a just response to cholera in Haiti, we understand that momentum is growing within the UN to urge the organization to honor its obligations to the cholera victims. As the UN’s human rights chief with a longtime commitment to principles of accountability, you are uniquely positioned to play a vital role in securing a just response to the cholera epidemic. In light of your long-standing record in support of accountability and establishing mechanisms to protect human rights, we urge you to call on Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to respect cholera victims’ right to a remedy and to reaffirm the UN’s commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights for all.
Thank you for your attention to this very important matter.
The John Marshall Law School International Human Rights Clinic
December 10, 2014