Today, on the opening of the GA, and in his final such speech as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon indicated that a compensation package for victims of Cholera is forthcoming. Speaking in French (original here), he expressed regret over the recent peacekeeper sexual abuse scandals and the Cholera epidemic in Haiti, and promised a package of assistance and support for better sanitation and water systems to victims would be forthcoming.
His speech confirms a significant and welcome shift in the UN’s approach to the cholera epidemic in Haiti. Since the outbreak in 2010, the UN steadfastly denied the assertion that a causal connection existed between the cholera outbreak and a UN peacekeeper base wherein blackwater was funneled into one of the main tributaries in Haiti. The UN also rejected claims for compensation by victims and their families stating, in a now infamous letter, that the claims were “not receivable” under the UN Convention on Privileges and Immunities. For my full assessment of the Cholera Claims and the UN’s response to this and other recent mass torts claims, see my recent article in the Chicago Journal of International Law here.
The first signs of a change in the UN’s approach came about in August, when Deputy Spokesperson Farhan Haq said in an email quoted in the New York Times that “over the past year, the U.N. has become convinced that it needs to do much more regarding its own involvement in the initial outbreak and the suffering of those affected by cholera.” The Times reported he also stated that a “new response will be presented publicly within the next two months, once it has been fully elaborated, agreed with the Haitian authorities and discussed with member states.”
Significantly, this communication was released days before a widely anticipated appeals decision was handed down by the Second Circuit. In this decision, the judges rejected the claimants appeal for compensation from the UN, relying on principles of contract interpretation to uphold the key finding that the “UN’s fulfillment of its Section 29 obligation is not a condition precedent to its Section 2 immunity” under the Convention on Privileges and Immunities of the UN.
There are several factors that might explain the UN’s new response. One is a reputational concern. The release of a very critical report by Phillip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights in August, concluded: “[that] a new approach is desperately needed. The starting point is that there should be an apology and acceptance of responsibility in the name of the Secretary-General. Consideration should then be given to constructing a policy package to address the need for compensation to the victims.” Alston’s report provides an instructive and poignant account of how the UN has mishandled this claim, while also illustrating how complex mass claims are for the Organization, given shrinking budgets, the sui generis legal position of the UN, and the lack of internal precedents on providing transparent process and remedies.
Another reason for the UN’s reconsideration of its stance clearly involves the upcoming elections for a new UN Secretary General. Later this fall, Ban Ki Moon will step down, and some believe that he wants to ensure his legacy is not tarred by the perception that the Haiti case was mishandled. Another theory is that it is better for the Organization to address this case within the current SG’s mandate, rather than saddling a new SG with such an albatross.
The key issue at present is what a compensation package for victims would look like. Alston’s report urges the UN to make use of other precedents for lump sum settlements, such as the 9/11 trust fund, the USA-France agreement to compensate Holocaust victims, and the Canadian Reparations Programme for the Indian Residential School System. He further notes: “it is clear that the United Nations could make use of these various precedents in order to shape an approach to compensation as part of a broader package that would provide justice to the victims and be affordable.”
While full details of the package will be released in October, advocates are hard at work at the UN, attempting to ensure a victim centered approach prevails. A letter sent to the UN Secretary General yesterday, for example, argues that there are four necessary components of an effective remedy:
“An effective remedy requires: (1) issuing a formal, public apology to the victims of cholera in Haiti, (2) ensuring full funding of the previously announced but largely unfunded cholera elimination plan, (3) committing to providing victims of the epidemic with material compensation in a timely fashion, and (4) implementing a transparent and participatory process.”
What seems clear at this stage is that the UN is not acknowledging any legal responsibility for the introduction of Cholera into Haiti for fear of setting precedent. Nonetheless, there is an opportunity here for the UN to improve the process of claims settlement, to adhere to its obligation to provide a remedy for damages incurred, and to demonstrate its commitment to the rule of law. Let’s hope the UN does the right thing. If it doesn’t, advocates in the Haiti Cholera litigation noted in a blast email today that they still have three months to appeal to the Supreme Court.