International experts join Cholera victims’ fight for justice

Haiti’s cholera victims have taken another important step toward justice with respect to the deadly epidemic caused by the United Nations (UN). On May 27, the victims filed their legal brief in an appeal of an earlier court decision dismissing their claims against the UN. On June 3, eighty-six organizations and experts filed an additional six briefs supporting the victims’ appeal.

Since the victims’ claims for remedies were first filed against the UN in 2011, the UN has steadfastly refused to acknowledge any forum in which the claims can be heard. The UN summarily rejected the claims filed within its own system, and refuses to accept the jurisdiction of any court outside its system. This latest appeal represents a bold attempt to break down the barrier to justice that the UN has tried to build around itself.

The victims’ brief was filed by lawyers at the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) in South Boston. It explained that the UN received immunity in exchange for its promise to allow people harmed by its operations to seek remedies through its own claims process. The brief argued that the UN should not be allowed to enjoy immunity in U.S. courts when it refuses to honor that. This latest appeal is designed to force the UN to own up to its responsibility, and be held to the same standards of respect for human rights and for the rule of law that it claims to espouse.

The victims’ appeal received a massive show of support when the six amicus curiæ (“friend of the court”) briefs were filed in the case, co-authored and signed by eighty-six leading international scholars, former UN officers, human rights organizations, and lawyers. The briefs represent the broad network of support, which stands behind the victims of cholera in Haiti, and intend to show the court that the victims have both legal and moral rights on their side. Together, the briefs provide a chorus of independent and authoritative voices, which demand justice for the victims. Renowned European law scholars, experts and practitioners in international law, and twenty-four human rights organizations, spanning from across the globe, have put these briefs before the court.

Eleven Haitian-American organizations jointly filed one of the briefs highlighting that although the UN mission in Haiti claims to exist to promote human rights and accountability, its behavior in the wake of the cholera outbreak conflicts with these principles. The brief condemns the UN’s failure to “abide by the same rule-of-law principles that it espouses as central to its mission in Haiti.” These Haitian-American organizations represent a broad array of interests from across the United States, brought together to unite in this common cause for justice. By providing a strong Haitian context to the case, it is hoped that the US court will hear the immense and continued suffering brought to Haiti by the UN’s unlawful actions, and that it will be brought to light that the issues before the court are not abstract concepts, and cannot be considered in a vacuum.

A brief filed by six former senior UN officials explains that the UN’s unjust response to its cholera epidemic has created an accountability crisis that threatens the organization’s legitimacy, credibility, and ability to fulfill its mission. “The UN calls the Haiti cholera victims’ fight for justice a threat” said Stephen Lewis, a former Deputy Director of UNICEF and current Co-Director of AIDS Free World, who signed the brief. “But the UN can make this lawsuit disappear by establishing a claims commission. The real threat to the UN here is its misguided refusal to comply with its own principles.”

Six prominent professors of U.S. Constitutional Law signed a brief explaining how the application of absolute immunity in this case, without any justification, violates the plaintiffs’ Constitutional rights to access to the courts. One of these experts, Erwin Chemerinsky, the Dean of the University of California Irvine School of Law, stated: “Access to the courts is a fundamental aspect of due process of law. This case is about whether those who suffered and died as a result of the cholera epidemic in Haiti have a right to be heard in a court of law. It is essential that the courts uphold and vindicate this basic liberty.”

These briefs join a host of people and organizations that have called for the UN to be accountable for its cholera in Haiti, including UN human rights experts, members of the U.S. Congress, editorial boards, and legal groups. The UN, for its part, does not seriously contest that it brought cholera to Haiti or that it has a responsibility to the victims. Instead, it maintains that no court can force it to comply with its obligations, because of its treaty-based immunity. The UN also claims that it is doing everything it can to fight the epidemic. The organization’s cholera response plan, first announced in 2012, is 9 percent funded.

This latest appeal is the most recent development in the victims’ long struggle for justice against the UN. Their fight began in 2011, when five thousand people who were infected or who lost family members to the disease filed complaints directly to the UN, with the help of the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) and IJDH. After fifteen months waiting in silence, the UN simply dismissed the complaints in 2013 as “not receivable.” Since that time, advocates from IJDH and BAI have been petitioning on a number of fronts, including bringing litigation in US courts, for the victims to have their claims resolved.

Concerns about UN impunity in Haiti expanded further last week, when a UN report emerged examining sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) in UN peacekeeping missions across the globe. Haiti was noted as one of four peacekeeping missions where SEA occurs systemically. In particular, the report reveals a prevalence of “transactional sex” in Haiti, in which peacekeepers procure sex from victims in exchange for goods, often to provide for basic necessities. The report cites interviews with 231 people in Haiti who reported having had transactional sex with UN peacekeepers. Despite a zero-tolerance policy for sexual exploitation and abuse within the UN, the report notes that victims have nowhere to seek remedies. Just as with the victims of cholera, the victims of SEA have scant avenues to receive remedies or assistance, which leaves them out in the cold and grants the perpetrators with impunity for their crimes.

Now that all of the victims’ supporting briefs have been filed in the cholera appeal, it remains to be seen whether the Second Circuit Court will enforce any limits on UN impunity. The court should render a decision within six months to a year. In the meantime, BAI and IJDH continue to work through their broad network of supporters and partners to put pressure on the UN.

Rodline Louijeune is a student at Boston College Law School. Mark Phillips is a recent graduate of McGill University’s Faculty of Law. Both are Ella Baker Legal Fellows at the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti (IJDH).