05 March 2013

Looking into the Debate over the UN's Guilt in Haiti

The UN continues to refuse to take responsibility for the cholera outbreak in Haiti. It will not provide compensation to the victims, as some are calling for, claiming immunity against such claims.

Many are outraged at the UN’s stance but, beyond the recriminations, there is a legitimate debate over what the UN can and should do. Some say that the UN should claim responsibility and pay the victims. Others argue that the UN cannot do that without causing irreparable damage to its global work, and to other humanitarian endeavors.

The UN announcement last week that it will not compensate vitcims of the outbreak led to a series of strongly worded articles condemning the actions by the UN. Former AP reporter Jonathan Katz wrote in Slate:
The U.N.’s claim of immunity is ironic in Haiti, where, after all, a lack of immunity was the problem: Haitians had no resistance to the imported disease because they’d never been exposed to it before. That nightmare continues. Though cases have tapered off, there are indications the disease is once again on the rise. Haiti’s health ministry reported a spike in cases nationwide in December 2012 and January 2013, with active outbreaks continuing in three of the country’s departments.
The Economist decried the UN’s claim of immunity by comparing its situation to that of a corporation.
If a company dumped lethal waste into a river in the United States, it would be sued for negligence. But there is no legal mechanism for redress against the UN. Immunity protects it from most courts. Although its agreement with Haiti provides for a claims commission to hear grievances, that commission has never been set up. So the lawyers for the cholera claimants brought their petition directly to the secretary-general. They demanded that the UN pay damages, accept responsibility, set up the claims commission and build the sewage systems that Haiti lacks.
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