Good news and bad news for persons affected by cholera in Haiti, declares Alston

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The United Nations’ ‘new approach’ to its role in bringing cholera to Haiti is an important step in the right direction, according to the UN independent human rights expert whose report  leaked to The New York Times in August and provoked the rethinking of the UN’s six-year long policy of denying all responsibility.

“Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s announcement today brings both good news and bad news,” in the view of Professor Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights and Faculty Director and Co-Chair of the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice.

“The good news,” he said, “includes the fact that the Secretary-General has finally acted, albeit in his last month in office, after years of stonewalling.”

He also praised the fact that individual compensation for the victims is still on the table and that there is a commitment to seek to mobilize major additional funds (including the possibility of assessed contributions) for cholera eradication.

But the bad news, according to Alston, is that the new package also represents a major missed opportunity.

“The determination not to accept legal responsibility entrenches a scandalous legal maneuver designed to sidestep the UN’s legal obligations.  It renders a meaningful apology impossible, as is made clear by the half-apology of the Secretary-General today: he apologizes that the UN has not done more to eradicate cholera, but not for causing the disease in the first place. And it condemns UN fund-raising to make up for its misdeeds in Haiti to a charitable operation, rather than one that is required and which must be funded.  As a result, there remains a good chance that little or no money will be raised and that the grand new approach will remain a breakthrough on paper, but one that brings little to the victims and people of Haiti.”

Alston noted that the Secretary-General’s report (UN Doc. A/71/620) carefully avoided any commitment to paying out individual compensation.  It notes only that the UN is ‘giving consideration’ to that option, which it characterizes as being fraught with ‘challenges, risks and constraints’.

The Special Rapporteur underlined that “paying reparations in such circumstances is always complex, and there are always unintended consequences that must be factored in, but the victims must be compensated as a matter of justice for the deaths caused by the UN’s negligence”.

“The credibility of UN peacekeeping and the overall reputation of the UN are at stake if the UN does not manage to compensate the victims.  Of course, broader community development programs are also needed, but one does not cancel out the other”, he said.

In October, in presenting his final report on the cholera crisis to the UN General Assembly the Special Rapporteur criticized the “flawed and unfounded legal advice provided by the UN lawyers” which had prevented the Organization from accepting responsibility.  He also noted that the approach adopted reflected the views strongly pressed on the UN by the United States.

Alston said today that the new report “hands most of the hardest issues on to the incoming Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres.”  He called upon Guterres to reconsider the legal basis upon which the UN was proceeding in order to improve the chances of success in relation to dealing with the cholera crisis in Haiti, and to avoid injustice in future cases.