The U.N.’s claim of immunity is ironic in Haiti, where, after all, a lack of immunity was the problem: Haitians had no resistance to the imported disease because they’d never been exposed to it before. That nightmare continues. Though cases have tapered off, there are indications the disease is once again on the rise. Haiti’s health ministry reported a spike in cases nationwide in December 2012 and January 2013, with active outbreaks continuing in three of the country’s departments.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Cholera, which spreads through contamination of food or water, can be prevented with good sanitation. It’s even easier to treat: Medicine is usually not required, just the speedy replacement of lost fluids. The U.N. estimates it would cost $2.27 billion to provide the necessary infrastructure in Haiti over the next 10 years. The victims’ lawyers have asked for up to $100,000 in additional compensation for each of the families they represent. In all, the total cost would probably be shy of $3 billion—a bargain compared with the economic, social, and personal damage the epidemic has brought. To put that figure in perspective, MINUSTAH’s budget for 2013 alone—again, a quarter of which is provided by the United States—is $644 million. Reduce the size of the nine-year-old peacekeeping mission, which after all is patrolling a country that’s not at war, and you could start paying that debt down quickly.
So what happens now? The U.N. could decide to pay on its own, perhaps without an admission of responsibility. But given its actions over the last two years—as officials who have publicly lied about the facts of the case have been promoted while the organization ponies up a scant 1 percent of the cost of its adopted initiative—that seems unlikely, absent outside pressure.
The families’ lawyers with the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti—a longtime U.N. foe—have vowed to take the fight to the courts, hoping the denial of accountability will win the sympathy of a judge in Europe, Haiti, or the United States. But they know it’s a long shot. The world body will likely claim immunity there, too, and many judges will be inclined to agree. The U.N.’s interpretation of its own immunity statutes and agreements is hard to overrule.
But there’s one other document worth considering in the meantime: “To reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small. To establish conditions under which justice and respect for … international law can be maintained, and to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.” Those are the words of the preamble to the United Nations charter. It’s not too late for the U.N. in Haiti to live up to them.