How Human Rights Can Save Haiti

by FRAN QUIGLEY

Last month, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced a new initiative to address the cholera epidemic in Haiti. The plan includes a variety of measures, most notably the building of desperately-needed water and sanitation infrastructure.

This is not yet cause for celebration. The UN and the international community have so far committed to pay only a fraction of the estimated $2.2 billion cost of the program. And the 10-year plan lacks an appropriate sense of urgency, with many more Haitians sure to die needlessly while it is being carried out.

But the announcement is definitely promising news, because it shows that the United Nations is responding to the pressure of a relentless global human rights campaign. Multiple experts, including a member of an investigatory panel appointed by the UN itself, have concluded that the cholera outbreak was triggered by the UN’s own reckless disregard for the health and safety of the Haitian people. Those investigations establish that, in October, 2010, untreated human waste from cholera-infected UN troops was dumped into a tributary of Haiti’s main waterway, leading to a gruesome wave of chaos and death that claimed 7,800 lives and sickened 600,000 more.

After two years of deflecting blame, the UN’s December 11th statement is a step in the right direction. It is a step the UN is taking only after a firm and insistent push by Haitian human rights activists and the international organizations that support them.

That push began almost immediately after the outbreak, when Haitians took to the streets demonstrating against the United Nations, gathering outside UN bases chanting Jistis ak reparasyon! Justice and reparations. The Haitian-U.S. human rights partnership Bureau des Avocats Internationaux and the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti filed legal claims against the UN on behalf of thousands of cholera victims and their families.

The movement soon went global. In the U.S., 104 members of Congress wrote to the UN demanding a fast and effective response. Advocacy groups turned up the heat with media outreach that led to influential editorials in several major newspapers, including The New York Times, calling for UN accountability. A coast-to-coast series of events featured the award-winning documentary film Baseball in the Time of Cholera, produced by actress Olivia Wilde and famed entrepreneur Elon Musk, which movingly chronicles the tragic impact cholera inflicted on one Haitian family. When a delegation from the UN Security Council visited Haiti in February, they were hounded by protesters demanding action on cholera. A petition launched by filmmaker Oliver Stone on Avaaz.org garnered 7,000 signers in its first week.

On the streets of Port-au-Prince and in the online petitions, the message is the same: Haiti suffers from cholera because the Haitian people lack basic human rights. Consider the massive criminal and civil liability that would have ensued if the UN had caused 7,000-plus deaths by dumping untreated and infected human waste in U.S. waterways. Yet, over two years since cholera exploded in the Haitian countryside, the UN has refused to even acknowledge responsibility, much less compensate the victims.

For Haitians, this is a familiar phenomenon. Once, the Duvaliers and other brutal kleptocrats used money and muscle to oppress the Haitian poor with impunity. Now it is the UN who clearly feels it is powerful enough, and its Haitian victims weak enough, that it can avoid the consequences it would shoulder in almost any other nation on earth.

But Ban Ki-moon’s statement last month suggests that the UN’s sense of impunity in Haiti may finally be eroding. Grassroots Haitian activists working for justice alongside international lawyers, sympathetic rights activists, and celebrities duplicates the classic blueprint for social change that worked to end South African apartheid, establish civil rights for African-Americans, and install democracy in Eastern Europe. It can work to bring justice to Haiti, too.

Cholera is certainly not Haiti’s only problem that begs for a human rights solution. Over three hundred thousand Haitians are still homeless nearly three years after the January 12, 2010 earthquake, despite global pledges of $10 billion for earthquake recovery. The fact that Haiti’s suffering endures despite such generosity is heart-breaking, but not surprising. When aid flows into a country whose elections exclude the most popular political party and whose resulting government threatens journalists and imprisons its political opponents, it is like trying to build a home without first establishing a sturdy foundation and durable framing. That is why the same activists calling for UN responsibility for cholera are pushing for criminal prosecution of Haitian human rights abusers, free and fair elections, and other core components of a sustainable and just society.

Haitians are proud of their history as the only modern nation to be created through the overthrow of slaveholders.  They know well that recognition of their human rights will come from demand, not largesse.

So Ban Ki-moon’s cholera announcement is not bad for starters. But is time for the UN, the world’s foremost promoter of human rights, to practice what it preaches, and remedy the grievous harm it has caused.

The Haitian people, with the help of a global network of human rights activists, will insist on it. Jistis ak reparasyon.

Fran Quigley is clinical professor and director of the Health and Human Rights Clinic at Indiana University McKinney School of Law.


Fran Quigley is a professor at Indiana University McKinney School of Law, where he directs the Health and Human Rights Clinic. He is the author of How Human Rights Can Build Haiti (Vanderbilt University Press).

Like What You’ve Read? Support CounterPunch
Weekend Edition
August 28-30, 2015
Andrew Levine
Viva Trump?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Long Time Coming, Long Time Gone
Mike Whitney
Looting Made Easy: the $2 Trillion Buyback Binge
Alan Nasser
The Myth of the Middle Class: Have Most Americans Always Been Poor?
Rob Urie
Wall Street and the Cycle of Crises
Ismael Hossein-Zadeh
Behind the Congressional Disagreements Over the Iran Nuclear Deal
Lawrence Ware – Marcus T. McCullough
I Won’t Say Amen: Three Black Christian Clichés That Must Go
Evan Jones
Zionism in Britain: a Neglected Chronicle
John Wight
Learning About the Migration Crisis From Ancient Rome
Andre Vltchek
Lebanon – What if it Fell?
Robert Fantina
Hillary Clinton, Palestine and the Long View
Randy Blazak
Donald Trump is the New Face of White Supremacy
Ben Burgis
Gore Vidal Was Right: What Best of Enemies Leaves Out
Suzanne Gordon
How Vets May Suffer From McCain’s Latest Captivity
Robert Sandels - Nelson P. Valdés
The Cuban Adjustment Act: the Other Immigration Mess
Uri Avnery
The Molten Three: Israel’s Aborted Strike on Iran
John Stanton
Israel’s JINSA Earns Return on Investment: 190 Americans Admirals and Generals Oppose Iran Deal
Bill Yousman
The Fire This Time: Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me”
Michael Welton
The Conversable World: Finding a Compass in Post-9/11 Times
Brian Cloughley
Don’t be Black in America
Charles Pierson
How the US and the WTO Crushed India’s Subsidies for Solar Energy
Kent Paterson
In Search of the Great New Mexico Chile Pepper in a Post-NAFTA Era
Binoy Kampmark
Live Death on Air: The Killings at WDBJ
Gui Rochat
The Guise of American Democracy
Emma Scully
Vultures Over Puerto Rico: the Financial Implications of Dependency
Chuck Churchill
Is “White Skin Privilege” the Key to Understanding Racism?
Kathleen Wallace
The Id(iots) Emerge
Andrew Stewart
Zionist Hip-Hop: a Critical Look at Matisyahu
Gregg Shotwell
The Fate of the UAW: Study, Aim, Fire
Halyna Mokrushyna
Decentralization Reform in Ukraine
Scott Parkin
Katrina Plus Ten: Climate Justice in Action
Norman Pollack
World Capitalism, a Basket Case: A Layman’s View
Sarah Lazare
Listening to Iraq
John Laforge
NSP/Xcel Energy Falsified Welding Test Documents on Rad Waste Casks
Wendell G Bradley
Drilling for Wattenberg Oil is Not Profitable
Joy First
Wisconsin Walk for Peace and Justice: Nine Arrested at Volk Field
Mel Gurtov
China’s Insecurity
Mateo Pimentel
An Operator’s Guide to Trump’s Racism
Yves Engler
Harper Conservatives and Abuse of Power
Michael Dickinson
Police Guns of Brixton: Another Unarmed Black Shot by London Cops
Ron Jacobs
Daydream Sunset: a Playlist
Charles R. Larson
The Beginning of the Poppy Wars: Amitav Ghosh’s “Flood of Fire”
David Yearsley
A Rising Star Over a Dark Forest
August 27, 2015
Sam Husseini
Foreign Policy, Sanders-Style: Backing Saudi Intervention
Brad Evans – Henry A. Giroux
Self-Plagiarism and the Politics of Character Assassination: the Case of Zygmunt Bauman