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Seeking Justice From the UN for Haiti’s 700,000 Cholera Victims

The announcement by the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti was only a slight exaggeration: “Everyone Tells UN to Fulfill Its Legal Obligations to Haiti Cholera Victims.”

The statement referred to those who signed on to amicus curiae (friend of the court) briefs asking the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals to allow a class action claim by Haiti cholera victims to go forward. And the list does seem to encompass nearly “everyone” that has an interest in justice and the rule of law, in Haiti and beyond: human rights experts, Haitian-American leaders, constitutional law scholars, and even a line-up of former UN officials.

All are calling for justice for victims of the 2010 epidemic triggered by human waste recklessly discharged from a UN base in rural Haiti. The death toll stands at a shocking 9,000; over 700,000 more have been sickened.

I should note that I am happy to be included as part of “everyone” in this case. On behalf of our law school Health and Human Rights Clinic, I helped draft and signed on to the brief submitted by international law scholars and attorneys.

In another brief, Haitian-Americans pointed out the tragic irony of this case, where the world’s foremost promoter of the rule of law is ducking responsibility like a 1960’s tobacco company. “Haitians are determined to keep fighting to hold the UN to its principles,” says Marleine Bastien of Haitian Women of Miami. “We will stop fighting for justice when the UN cholera stops killing Haitians unjustly.”

Perhaps the support from Haitian-Americans or even advocates like me does not come as a surprise. But in a move that should make UN leadership sit up and take notice, our ranks were joined by six former senior UN officials. They are concerned not only about the Haitian victims, but about the UN’s legitimacy in the face of a denial of justice for those who are so grievously harmed.

“The UN calls the Haiti cholera victims’ fight for justice a threat”, said Stephen Lewis, a former Deputy Director of UNICEF and current Co-Director of AIDS Free World, who signed one of the briefs. “But the real threat to the UN here is its misguided refusal to comply with its own principles.”

These briefs represented the latest in several years’ worth of demands for the UN to be accountable for its actions. Beginning with street-level protests in Haiti shortly after the outbreak, the campaign has included an online petition, multiple award-winning documentary films, editorials in major newspapers, and letters to the U.N. from over 100 members of the U.S. Congress. Yet the U.N. has continued to avoid responsibility, forcing the cholera victims to pursue justice in court.

One of their lawyers, Beatrice Lindstrom of the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti, said the latest collection of arguments boils down to a fundamental truth. “No person is so disempowered as to fall below the law’s protections; no organization is so prestigious as to rise above the law’s obligations.”

It is a message that “everyone” should embrace, including the courts and the leadership of the United Nations.

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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).

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