October 16, 2020

“Deep Shame Within the Ranks of UN Staff”

Assessing the UN’s Haiti Cholera Response 10 Years On

By Joey Bui JD’21

In 2010, a United Nations (UN) peacekeeping mission caused an outbreak of cholera in Haiti, resulting in the deaths of over 10,000 Haitians. On Oct 8, 2020, ten years after the outbreak began and amid the COVID-19 global pandemic, key experts joined the Human Rights Program at Harvard Law School for a webinar to discuss the ongoing failure of the UN to adequately answer to Haitian victims and what lessons the rights organization should learn moving forward.

It was a rare occasion in which a UN official spoke publicly with Haitian and foreign advocates who have been extremely critical of the UN’s response. During the event, former UN officials provided an inside look at the UN’s failures in Haiti, and expressed shame about the UN’s response. The panel also identified key takeaways for the UN to adopt in order to prevent a repeat in the future.

The virtual panel, which was a part of Harvard Worldwide Week and was co-sponsored by seven different Harvard centers and groups, included Mario Joseph, a prominent Haitian human rights lawyer at Bureau des Avocats Internationaux who has led efforts to seek justice for victims, as well as Haitian doctors who have worked on the frontlines of the outbreak, Dr. Inobert Pierre of St. Boniface Hospital and Dr. Marie Marcelle Deschamps of GHESKIO. Presenting perspectives from the UN were Josette Sheeran, the UN Special Envoy for Haiti; Andrew Gilmour, the former Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights; and Philip Alston, the former UN Special Rapporteur for extreme poverty and human rights.

Eight individuals on zoom during a webinar.
From left to right, top: Beatrice Lindstrom, Philip Alston, Louise Ivers; Middle: Marie Deschamps, Mario Joseph, Andrew Gilmour; Bottom: Inobert Pierre, Josette Sheeran.

The UN’s initial response: a “denial of justice” and a “cover-up”

Mario Joseph called attention to the UN’s refusal to accept responsibility until 2016, six years after the outbreak. He called the UN’s initial position a “denial of justice” that continues to inflict great harm on Haiti

“The UN was claiming that it had immunity from any judicial proceedings,” said Joseph, who has worked on multiple legal actions against the organziation. “The UN was confusing its immunity, which we admitted it had, with total impunity, which it did not have.”

Philip Alston, who is also John Norton Pomeroy Professor of Law at New York University School of Law, described the UN’s initial position on the cholera outbreak as a cover-up.

“The UN very quickly adopted the slogan, ‘Let’s not worry about where this came from, but instead about what we can do,’ which is a perfect way to proceed with a cover up,” said Alston.

Alston also challenged the UN’s refusal to hear victims’ claims for compensation. “In legal terms, the UN’s response was initially and continues to be deplorable and indefensible,” he said.

According to Alston, “the [UN] Office of Legal Affairs did not undertake a systematic and credible professional analysis of the issues raised. The office has systematically refused to engage in any debate, and it has taken a very active role in supressing discussion, prohibiting staff officials from talking about this in public and not responding to any of the requests put forward by other senior UN officials for more information and for debate.”

The legacy of Haiti’s cholera outbreak on the UN: “the single greatest example of hypocrisy”

The event marked the first time that Andrew Gilmour has spoken publicly about the issue and the internal conflicts that plagued the organization’s response. Gilmour served at the UN for 30 years, including in the Office of the Secretary-General and as the UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, while key decisions about the UN’s response were deliberated.

Reading from a memo that he wrote for colleagues upon leaving his office in 2019, Gimour said, “During the last few decades, we have all lived through events that caused deep shame within the ranks of the UN staff: Rwanda, Srebrenica, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and others. But for many, nothing comes close to the ethical morass of our response on Haiti cholera.” The memo was partially leaked earlier this year.

In his remarks, Gilmour pinpointed the Office of Legal Affairs as a particular barrier to justice.

“Our organization makes great play of demanding accountability on the part of others,” he read. “Thus, the sight of the extraordinary internal campaign – that was waged to thwart DSG Eliasson’s efforts – presenting legal arguments against even the most limited accountability for that avoidable tragedy, while derisively rejecting arguments in support of the UN Charter and Haitian’s rights, may rank as the single greatest example of hypocrisy in our 75-year history.

The UN’s New Approach to Haiti: eradicating cholera and lack of funding

Upon admitting its role in the cholera outbreak in 2016, the UN announced it would launch a New Approach to Cholera in Haiti. The New Approach is a $400 million plan that aims to eradicate cholera in Haiti, improve infrastructure, and provide material assistance to victims.

As UN Special Envoy on Haiti, Sheeran oversees the response to cholera.

“We’re now in the 21st month of zero cases,” Sheeran said on Thursday, Oct. 8. “That is something I’ve really devoted my time to — to end the spread of this terrible disease and the suffering and deaths from it.”

However, fundraising has been a challenge for the next two parts of the New Approach: improving infrastructure and directly assisting victims. The UN’s response relies on voluntary donations from member states.

“Each area [of the New Approach] has not been funded at the level it needs to be,” said Sheeran. “I didn’t expect [this role] primarily to be a fundraising job.”

Dr. Marie Marcelle Deschamps, whose clinic in Haiti treated cholera patients and now sees thousands of COVID-19 patients, emphasized the need to improve infrastructure.

“I think Haiti has a lot to share with the world, but bottom line, there is a need to reinforce the infrastructure,” said Dr. Deschamps. “Whatever plan we can develop… without financial resources we will not be able to put the plan into practice.”

Dr. Deschamps warned that Haiti is not safe fromfuture outbreaks.

“We know that cholera will return. We will have another epidemic, because all the risk factors are there,” said Dr. Deschamps.  

Speaking in her personal capacity, Sheeran said that the UN needs a different funding mechanism.

“We know that even when people are trying to do the right things, sometimes bad things happen,” said Sheeran. “There have to be mechanisms to be able to respond quickly… leaving it to voluntary [funding] systems can lead to prolonging the suffering.”

The New Approach’s failure to include victims: “for 10 years they demanded justice without getting it”

Mario Joseph also pointed out the UN’s failure to include victims in their response to the cholera outbreak.

“An effective response cannot be done without hearing from the victims,” said Joseph. “I’m not sure why the victims have been excluded from the process. I’m not sure if it is because they are poor or because they are Black, but I do know that for 10 years they demanded justice without getting it.”

The UN has yet to provide compensation to victims. Joseph rejected the UN’s claim that it cannot do more due to inadequate funding.

“I repeat that this justice cannot be based on charity, but must be based on human rights,” said Joseph.

Dr Inobert Pierre ended the panel calling for a renewed commitment to justice.

“I think 10 years later, it may have been all forgotten,” said Dr. Pierre. “But the fact that we are still talking about it, makes it a possibility to see justice for the victims. And the victims are in the thousands. They are the poorest people in the country and the cholera epidemic caused them to lose everything.”


You can watch a full recording of the Oct. 8 event here or below:

Thanks to Office of the Vice Provost for International Affairs for sponsoring Harvard Worldwide Week. This event was co-sponsored by the Human Rights Program at Harvard Law School, the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, the Center for Global Health at Massachusetts General Hospital, the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, the FXB Center for Health & Human Rights, the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard, and HLS Advocates for Human Rights.

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