“Immunity does not mean impunity,” argued social justice lawyer Beatrice Lindstrom before a packed courtroom to three judges of the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals. Lindstrom, a 2010 graduate of NYU Law School, has spent most of her career fighting for human rights for and with the people of Haiti. She appeared before the court as a lawyer with the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) and Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI). She argued that the United Nations (UN) must be held accountable for its personnel introducing and spreading cholera in Haiti which has killed more than 9,000 and infected another 800,000 to date. While there is little question that UN personnel brought and spread cholera to Haiti, the UN continues to argue it is immune from suit. The court has not yet decided whether the victims are going to get their day in court or not.
Lindstrom, who speaks, to varying extents, English, Swedish, Korean, French and Haitian Creole, has always had a global vision. She grew up in Sweden and Korea, “two of the least diverse countries in the world, and always felt like somewhat of an outsider. In Korea especially, the national identity doesn’t include a space for biracial people, and so I was often treated like a foreigner by default. Because of this, I’ve always defined my community and interests as more global than local, and I think that may also be what draws me particularly to accountability for powerful international actors.
“My mother was a leader in the student democratization movement in South Korea, and moved to Sweden to study democracy. She’s always been a vocal leader for progressive issues in ways big and small, whether through her career or in dinner table conversations, and that’s shaped both my worldview and my personal life view. My mom has always been a role model for me. She responds to every injustice she sees with righteous anger and doesn’t hesitate to be a force for social change.
Lindstrom’s path towards justice work started while she was studying political science and economics at Emory University.
When the 2004 Southeast Asian tsunami hit, “I found myself crushed by the images of the disaster streaming in on my TV. I organized a huge fundraising campaign for tsunami relief. It was my first time really stepping into the shoes of an activist on my own initiative.
“I then spent the summer teaching English in a village on the Southeast coast of Thailand during the week and working alongside a community trying to rebuild their homes and lives on the weekends. The devastation was still unspeakable five months later, but I was particularly struck by the extent to which the international community engaged with tsunami-affected regions as if they were a blank slate. They acted as if there weren’t communities with lives, cultures and histories that were rooted there and whose voices mattered. That was a wake-up call and made me look deeper at the structural injustices that are at the root of disasters and how we respond to them.
“I didn’t think I wanted to be a lawyer, because it seemed like a profession removed from the type of vast social change I wanted to see in the world.
“I went to NYU School of Law partly because I wanted to learn how the frame of human rights could transform the ideals I believed in into something enforceable. Human rights language was always in the background of a lot of the issues I cared about (like economic and social justice), and I grew curious about what was meant about those rights. If they weren’t backed up by law, it just seemed like a glorified principle. So I wanted to understand how those pieces fit together, and to what extent we give human rights substance through national and international laws. Thailand brought that into focus as I became aware of the fights over land rights between the pre-existing communities and the government and companies that wanted to come in and build up the coastal areas.
“Law school can be a suffocating place for social justice lawyers, but it also forced me to defend the principles we stand for through a different lens. Our classroom discussions focused a lot of why the law is what it is, and what it should be, and thinking through both of those things is often so much more important than just understanding what the law is. I was also fortunate to find a really fabulous community in law school that included my now-husband and many of my closest friends. I was really taken by NYU’s commitment to public interest and human rights. In retrospect it was the perfect place for me and I still find myself very much plugged into the NYU law community.
“I didn’t think I’d take the bar exam, but the more time I spent in law school, the more interested I became in the idea of litigation as a complementary tool to other types of social justice work.
While Lindstrom was still in law school, Haiti was struck by an earthquake, which killed 300,000, and injured 300,000, left over 1.5 million homeless and fueled a surge in human rights violations against women, prisoners and the poor.
“When the earthquake struck Haiti in January 2010, the images of devastation reminded me of what I had witnessed in Thailand. The injustices in Haiti drew me to become engaged. I applied for a fellowship from NYU to spend a year in Haiti to support a human rights-based approach to rebuilding Haiti. I wanted to work with the one that would place Haitian voices at the forefront, the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) in Port au Prince. The BAI is Haiti’s oldest public interest law firm, and one of the only organizations that exist to defend and enforce the legal rights of the poor and marginalized in Haiti.”
BAI is a grassroots legal organization that uses a combination of litigation, advocacy and community organizing to pursue justice in some of Haiti’s largest human rights causes.
Lindstrom moved to Port au Prince and joined renowned human rights advocate Mario Joseph at BAI working on issues of health, prisons, housing and women’s rights.
“I had only been in Haiti a few weeks when cholera broke out. Thousands of people were showing up at hospitals and collapsing from uncontrollable vomiting and diarrhea. In the first month, 1,000 people died. It was one of the worst public health disasters of our time, but because it was Haiti, and because it happened on top of so much other suffering, the world seemed to not pay attention in the way one would expect.
“Within weeks of the outbreak, evidence emerged that UN peacekeepers were responsible for the outbreak. Journalists exposed the fact that a UN base was leaking foul-smelling sewage directly into a tributary to the river that tens of thousands of Haitians rely on as their primary water source. Later investigations revealed that the soldiers on the base had recently arrived from Nepal, where cholera is endemic, and that the base had broken pipes and disposed of human waste from the camp toilets into open-air pits dug directly into the ground at the top of a hill, which overflowed into the river when it rained.
“The UN’s fault and causation was so clear, it seemed inconceivable at first that an organization like the UN, whose raison d’etre is promotion of human rights wouldn’t take its responsibility seriously and respond justly. But then study after study came out establishing its responsibility, and the official response was just to deny and marginalize the voices of Haitians calling for justice. That’s when our legal team at BAI and the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) got involved.
“My first reaction, after researching the issue, was that there was nothing we could do. The UN has broad immunity from suit in national court, but it has international treaty obligations to establish alternative mechanisms to adjudicate and remedy individuals who are harmed by UN operations. Courts seemed to take the UN’s immunity very seriously, and we learned that the claims commission that was supposed to exists to decide claims in the place of courts had never been established.
“When I spoke to the team they reminded me that we couldn’t let the state of a law be a deterrent to seeking justice. So I went back to the drawing board.
“We decided to try to hold the UN to its obligations by filing claims in 2011 directly with the organization, and demanding the establishment of a claims commission.
“We worked with victims in rural Haiti to file 5,000 claims with the UN seeking compensation, a public apology, and investment in water and sanitation infrastructure.
“Over a year later, the UN rejected the claims without providing much of an explanation. That effectively left victims without any forum to get a fair hearing on their claims and seek remedies. It caused a huge uproar because everyone who looked at their response could tell they were just trying to avoid responsibility. To me this issue is such a deep betrayal of the UN’s own basic principle that human rights apply equally to all.
“Since it was clear that the UN had breached their obligations under treaties, we decided to file suit in 2013 in U.S. District Court in New York. The District Court dismissed the suit in 2015 on the grounds that the UN had immunity based on the treaties that created it. We then appealed to the US Court of Appeal. I’m really fortunate to get to work on this case and to get to have so much responsibility. When the case went to court, the team entrusted me to argue on the plaintiffs’ behalf.
“Over the past five years, I’ve been managing a campaign that brings together litigation and advocacy to secure justice and accountability from the United Nations. Our team works on many different levels at once to challenge the notion that the UN can hold itself above the law, using a range of strategies from organizing in Haiti to the halls of power in New York.
“There is no doubt in my mind that had the UN in New York contaminated the East River with cholera, the UN would immediately have owned up to it and done everything in its power to make it right. The fact that there is not a just response in Haiti, even after 10,000 deaths and the epidemic going into its six year, is unacceptable.
“I refuse to accept a world in which we have dual standards of justice based on the race, wealth, and political power.
”Of course, this is a problem that exists in the U.S. as well, and is why I’m also so inspired by movements like Black Lives Matter. But I feel that we should be able to demand more of the organization we’ve created to promote human rights, and will keep fighting for justice until the UN shifts course.
How Justice Happens
“Litigation can be an important tool to obtain remedies, and also to put pressure on decision makers and keep an issue in the spotlight. But it’s an imperfect tool, and there is no way the issue would be where it is now if it wasn’t for all the movement building and advocacy that is happening simultaneously.
“Effective movement lawyering requires effective use of a lot of non-legal tools. Language skills, social media skills, and willingness to bring excellence to non-legal work are all really critical to effective social change.”
“I believe that successful justice movements always start with and put the victims themselves at the forefront. Law and lawyers can play an important part in achieving justice, even when the system is stacked against it. Sometimes the act of bringing a lawsuit can be an equalizer and shift the narrative of an issue into one that’s viewed from a justice lens.
“For example, with the cholera case, the media at first treated Haitians calling for justice from the UN as ungrateful recipients of aid. There were a lot of headlines at the time along the lines of “angry Haitians blame benevolent aid organizations for their misery.” The lawsuit didn’t fix that overnight, but it did cause people to start opening their eyes to the facts that Haitian victims have rights and are entitled to demand respect for those rights.
“My legal career has been at BAI and IJDH, and the organizations’ philosophies have very much shaped and reinforced my own view on how to best affect change. IJDH is uncompromising in its commitment to social justice and unafraid to be disruptive, but also emphasizes movement building and strategies that will bring in new allies. I think that combination is both effective and important and informs my model of social change as requiring participation of all kinds of actors. The IJDH team is also constantly self-critical and reflective of what the appropriate role is for lawyers working for social change in a community that isn’t ours (as non-Haitians working in Haiti). We are constantly engaging in conversation about our privilege and how to better put our partners and clients at the forefront.
“I’ve also had the opportunity to partner with some terrific social justice organizations like the Center for Constitutional Rights and EarthRights International, both of which are at the forefront of undertaking impact litigation in a way that stays true to the people they support and puts them at the center.
“In addition to my mom, I’m endlessly inspired by the women in Haiti who are leading social justice movements in the face of so much structural injustice.
“Two of the lawyers I work with are role models for me. Mario Joseph, his courage and commitment to principles is unyielding and he uses that in service of the poor and marginalized. It’s a privilege to support his vision for a more just world. Brian Concannon always manages to strike a perfect balance between being unyielding in his principles and being accessible to everyone around him. He’s fostered an incredible community around our work, and empowers others to lead in a way that I strive, often unsuccessfully, to emulate. I’m also constantly inspired and empowered by the young women lawyers on our team.
Satisfaction and Challenges
“I draw so much satisfaction from working within a team of dedicated, brilliant, hilarious, and compassionate people. I think when you’re up against difficult odds, which is almost always the case in social justice work; you have to make sure to celebrate the small victories.
I find it challenging when people don’t bring the same compassion that we bring to our work and to our relationships with each other. And when I realize that I am guilty of the same thing. Also, we’re such a small team that sometimes it gets overwhelming and can be hard to find balance between doing more and taking time for other parts of life.
Advice to Students
“Be close to people. Bryan Stevenson talks about the importance of proximity to people. I think it’s critical to pursue opportunities to immerse yourself with the communities we work with. This also ensures that lawyers aren’t pursuing agendas that aren’t people-centered.
“Law school has a tendency to emphasize the need to pursue very strict paths, but I don’t think that’s necessarily true. So much of my path has been a combination of conviction and chance. I can tell you how I got from point A to point B, but the reality is that very little of that path was due to my own intentional planning.
In addition to everything else, Lindstrom makes time to write about Haitian human rights for the popular press and for law reviews , speaks about Haiti to national and international media and law schools and volunteers with several human rights organizations.
“I sustain myself mostly through good people and good food. I draw strength from spending time with my partner and connecting and laughing with friends and family over a good meal. I enjoy being out in nature and yoga, but I don’t do either as much as I should.
“Sometimes it’s hard to balance personal life with work, but these are all pieces that make me whole. I try to bring my whole person into my work, and my passions for justice into my life. I find that to be sustaining, even if it doesn’t always answer the very practical question of how to devote enough time to any one part.
“Joia Mukherjee, who is the Chief Medical Officer for Partners in Health recently said in a speech “Live with the radical notion that your life is of one piece. That family, friends, your children, your vocation, and your joy are of one piece.” That is what I strive for.