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The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has launched a “Celebrate Human Rights” campaign to commemorate the December 10 anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The rights enshrined in the UDHR include the rights to life (Art. 3), health (Art. 25) and to access to competent national tribunals for rights violations. “Universal” means “everyone”, including Haitians.

This Human Rights Day, let’s ask UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay, to stand up for victims of the cholera that UN peacekeepers introduced to Haiti in October 2010. Haitians’ rights to health and to life are being violated: over 26,000 and 200 killed in just the last month; over 7,000 killed and 500,000 sickened since the epidemic started. The UN declines to provide the medical treatment and clean water necessary to control the epidemic, and refuses to allow the victims their day in court.

High Commissioner Pillay could be a strong advocate for cholera victims, almost all of whom are desperately poor. She has made a career of courageously and successfully standing up for victims of human rights violations, including victims of apartheid in South Africa and rapes in Rwanda, to ensure their day in court against powerful perpetrators. She calls her Commission "the voice of the victim everywhere."

A UN report confirmed that “overwhelming evidence” points to peacekeepers of the UN Stabilization Mission to Haiti (MINUSTAH) as the source of the cholera introduced to Haiti in October 2010.The report cites the Mission’s failure to test peacekeepers deployed from cholera epidemic zones abroad and waste disposal practices that allowed raw sewage to flow into Haiti’s largest river system. But the UN refuses to accept responsibility for the epidemic, claiming that other factors, including Haiti’s poor clean water and healthcare systems, somehow absolve it. But those factors were well-known at the time the UN made the decisions about testing troops deployed from cholera zones and maintaining its waste disposal system, and were a basis for the UN exercising greater care, not an excuse for negligence.

The UN won’t let cholera victims challenge this legal claim in a fair, impartial tribunal. A Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the Haitian government confers the UN immunity from suits in Haitian courts, and in seven years MINUSTAH has never waived this immunity or established the Standing Claims Commission required by the SOFA. On November 3, 2011, five thousand cholera victims filed complaints asking the UN to respond justly to the cholera or provide a fair mechanism for trying their claims, but the UN has not responded.

The UN’s failure to respect the rights enshrined in the UDHR, one of its foundational documents, or to respond justly to Haiti’s cholera epidemic, when the liability is so clear and the devastation so great, damages its credibility. The failure also undermines the work of MINUSTAH and all UN agencies, including the High Commissioner’s Office.

For more information on cholera in Haiti and the victim’s struggle for justice, see http://ijdh.org/cholera-litigation

Letter to
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pillay
UNHCHR Public Information Officer Fred Kirungi
UNHCHR Independent Expert for Haiti Michel Forst
I am writing to ask you to publicly insist that the United Nations respond justly to the victims of the cholera introduced to Haiti by soldiers from the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) in October 2010. A just response requires the UN to either: a) concede responsibility and provide the medical treatment and clean water required to control what is now the world’s worst cholera epidemic; or b) allow the victims to contest a denial of responsibility before a fair, impartial tribunal.

The cholera epidemic in Haiti has killed over 7,000 Haitians and sickened over 500,000. Some experts predict that the epidemic will kill another 15,000 more Haitians with current control efforts. The UN’s own investigation confirmed that “overwhelming evidence” points to peacekeepers of the UN Stabilization Mission to Haiti (MINUSTAH) as the cholera source. The report cites: a) failure to test peacekeepers deployed from cholera epidemic zones abroad, and b) negligent waste disposal practices that allowed raw sewage to flow into Haiti’s largest river system.

But the UN refuses to accept responsibility for the epidemic, claiming that other factors, including Haiti’s “water and sanitation and health care system deficiencies… and conducive environmental and epidemiological conditions” allowed the spread of the disease. But those factors, as well as the risks from a cholera outbreak, were well-known at the time the UN made the decisions about testing troops deployed from cholera zones and maintaining its waste disposal system. They should have been a basis for the UN exercising greater care to protect Haitians from cholera, not an excuse for not doing so.

The UN has not let cholera victims challenge this legal claim in a fair, impartial tribunal. A Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the Haitian government gives the UN immunity from suits in Haitian courts, and in seven years MINUSTAH has never waived this immunity or established the Standing Claims Commission required by the SOFA. On November 3, 2011, five thousand cholera victims filed complaints asking the UN to respond justly to the cholera or provide a fair mechanism for trying their claims, but the UN has not responded.

You have made a career of helping victims of human rights violations secure their day in court, often over the objections of powerful people and institutions. Haiti’s victims need your help now, but so does the UN. The UN’s refusal to respond justly when the liability is so clear and the devastation so great diminishes its credibility, and undermines UN human rights work in Haiti and throughout the world, including the important work of your Office.

Please show Haiti’s cholera victims, and the world, that the UN Is not above the law by publicly urging the UN to respond justly to Haiti’s cholera epidemic by compensating victims and providing all Haitians with the medical treatment and clean water necessary to control the epidemic.

Very truly yours,