The month of October brings an unwelcome anniversary for Jacqueline Olonville.
A 54 year-old mother and grandmother who sells plaintains by the road that runs through the village of Bocozelle, Haiti, Olonville was one of over half a million Haitians who were sickened by the massive cholera outbreak of October, 2010. Olonville’s affliction followed cholera’s frightening, filthy pattern—severe stomach pain followed by uncontrollable diarrhea and vomiting. Fortunately, she reached a hospital in time.
When I spoke to her during a visit last year, I asked Olonville if she knew people in her community who did not survive the kolera. “Wi. Anpil!” she replied. Many. Especially children and old people.
Indeed, 8,000 Haitians have been killed by cholera, and hundreds more die each year. Haiti had avoided cholera for a century before the outbreak triggered by United Nations troops systematically dumping untreated, infected human waste into the country’s primary river. Despite overwhelming evidence of the UN’s responsibility, evidence that includes the analysis of the UN’s own experts, Haitian victims have not received so much as an apology for their grievous losses, much less a remedy.
But, after three years of UN stonewalling, the outlook is finally improving for Jacqueline Olonville and other cholera victims. Earlier this month, at a Geneva ceremony honoring the work of Haitian human rights attorney Mario Joseph, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pillay deviated from her prepared remarks. “Those who suffered as a result of that cholera (should) be provided with compensation,” Pillay said.
It was the first time a UN official had made such a statement, but it did not emerge from a vacuum. Pillay spoke on the eve of the filing of a long-anticipated class action lawsuit against the UN by the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, the U.S. sister organization of Joseph’s Bureau des Avocats Internationaux. The claim filed in U.S. District Court in New York asks the UN to provide the water and sanitation infrastructure necessary to stop cholera’s spread, issue an apology to the Haitian people, and compensate the victims.
The lawsuit is just the most recent in a series of actions initiated by the people of Haiti. Street protests began almost immediately after the cholera outbreak, then evolved into a multinational campaign for justice that includes an award-winning documentary, raucous demonstrations from New York City to Port-au-Prince, and online petitions that have achieved global reach.
In response, over 100 members of Congress have publicly called for the UN to take responsibility for Haiti’s cholera damage, a significant development given the U.S.’s status as the UN’s top funder. And the UN itself has committed or raised over $200 million towards the cost of the desperately needed sanitation system. That amount is a fraction of the total necessary to address the monumental harm caused, but it is a start at addressing Haiti’s number one public health problem.
This activism is a descendant of other momentous social movements. Haiti’s campaign is rights-based, like the Solidarity strikes in Poland, the South African anti-apartheid movement, and the sit-ins and boycotts of the U.S. civil rights era. Haitians suffer because their basic human rights are not respected, a fact well-illustrated by considering the massive criminal and civil liability that would have crashed down on the UN if it had killed 8,000 Americans with its recklessness.
Accountability by the powerful is the cornerstone of human rights, which is why the cholera movement is so important. If the UN acknowledges its responsibility to Haitians, it will set an example that resonates around the world, where hundreds of millions struggle for access to the most basic of rights.
That is Jacqueline Olonville’s goal. Never politically involved before, Olonville now attends demonstrations and even speaks to the crowds about cholera’s impact on her village. Some of her neighbors, citing Haiti’s long history of impunity for the powerful, tell her she is wasting her time.
But even before the recent hopeful developments, Olonville said that she has faith that “something” will come of all the activism and lawsuits and petitions. When I asked her what that “something” would be, she gave a three-word answer.
“Jistis ak reparasyon.” Justice and reparations.
Fran Quigley is a clinical professor at Indiana University McKinney School of Law. He is the author of the forthcoming How Human Rights Can Build Haiti (Vanderbilt University Press).