Alston: UN Lawyers Undermine a Just Solution for the Victims of Cholera in Haiti

New York (25 October 2016) – Philip Alston, UN expert and Faculty Director of NYU’s Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, claimed today that flawed and unfounded legal advice provided by the UN lawyers is preventing the Organization from accepting responsibility for the cholera outbreak that UN peacekeepers caused in Haiti in 2010.

“The UN’s explicit and unqualified denial of anything other than a moral responsibility is a disgrace,” Alston said today. “If the United Nations bluntly refuses to hold itself accountable for human rights violations, it makes a mockery of its efforts to hold Governments and others to account,” he noted.

Cholera was brought to Haiti for the first time in the country’s history by UN peacekeepers exactly six years ago. Almost 10,000 people have died as a result and around 800,000 have been infected, affecting close to ten per cent of the population.

In a report to the UN General Assembly, the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights criticised the UN’s Office of Legal Affairs (OLA) for coming up with a “patently artificial and wholly unfounded legal pretence for insisting that the Organization must not take legal responsibility for what it has done.”

Mr. Alston also noted that OLA’s approach “has been cloaked in secrecy: there has been no satisfactory official explanation of the policy, no public attempt to justify it, and no known assessment of its consequences for future cases. This goes directly against the principles of accountability, transparency and the rule of law that the UN itself promotes globally.”

The Special Rapporteur noted that the Organization’s legal position appears to largely explained by the approach of the United States of America, Haiti’s close neighbour and the main contributor to the UN’s peacekeeping budget.

“There are many reasons to believe that the reluctance by OLA to accept legal responsibility is consistent with views strongly pressed by the United States. Despite numerous requests to do so, the United States itself has never publicly stated its legal position on the responsibility of the UN for causing cholera in Haiti,” the expert said.

“Instead, it seems to have pressed the UN to adopt the position frequently taken by lawyers in the US that responsibility should never be accepted voluntarily, since it could complicate future litigation.  But this rationale is completely inapplicable to the UN which enjoys absolute immunity from suit in national courts, and whose reputation depends almost entirely on being seen to act with integrity,” he noted.

Mr. Alston explained that, for six years, the UN ignored claims by victims for a remedy, focusing exclusively on measures to contain the outbreak, and only after his draft report leaked to the New York Times in August did the UN announce a ‘new approach’.

“The good news is that, under the courageous leadership of the UN Secretary-General and Deputy Secretary-General, the UN has recently set up the Haiti Cholera
Response Multi-Partner Trust Fund (MPTF) with the goal of raising at least $400 million to greatly enhance its cholera eradication efforts and to assist victims of the disease. The bad news is that the UN has still not admitted factual or legal responsibility, and has not offered a legal settlement as required by international law,” said the independent human rights expert.

Mr. Alston said that even sympathetic and well-informed observers had asked him why it was so important that the UN admits legal responsibility. “Far from being a legal technicality, the OLA position has deep and lasting consequences, for Haiti and all future cases,” he noted.

“The current stance of its lawyers ensures that the UN will never admit its responsibility for introducing cholera,” Mr. Alston said. “And avoiding legal responsibility hinders the UN from learning lessons and making sure that the fatal mistakes made in Haiti are not repeated elsewhere.”

“If the UN wants to salvage its reputation and credibility, which have been severely damaged by the cholera crisis, and ensure that this case will not haunt it forever, it needs to do the right thing and admit legal responsibility. There is no justification, legal or otherwise, for any other course of action,” the Special Rapporteur concluded.

OHCHR Press Release

Statement to General Assembly

Report to General Assembly