The Economist, Mar 2nd 2013 | NEW YORK
IN THE span of a few hours on February 21st, the United Nations issued statements on the legitimacy of two separate human-rights claims in Haiti. In the first case, in which several dozen people are seeking justice against Jean-Claude Duvalier, the country’s dictator from 1971 to 1986, the UN urged action in the courts. “Such systematic violations of rights must not remain unaddressed,” urged the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay. She urged the judicial authorities “to act on their responsibilities”.
Her statement was a rebuke to the Haitian state. When Mr Duvalier unexpectedly returned to the country in 2011, he was indicted for financial and human-rights crimes. But last year a court ruled that too much time had elapsed for him to be tried for the torture, disappearances and murders that took place under his regime. Ms Pillay, along with many human-rights groups, argues that the statute of limitations does not apply to such grave abuses. The victims have appealed against the ruling but Mr Duvalier has failed to answer two court summons; he was scheduled to appear in court again on February 28th.
In the second case, involving 5,000 claimants seeking compensation for what they say was the UN’s introduction of cholera to Haiti, the UN said that no action against it was possible. In a terse statement, the office of Ban Ki-moon, the secretary-general, declared the claims “not receivable” because of the organisation’s privileges and immunities.
Most scientists who have studied the matter have concluded that UN peacekeepers unwittingly brought cholera to Haiti in 2010. Grossly inadequate sanitation practices at a peacekeeping base, including the spillover of faecal waste, led to the contamination of a nearby stream. That stream fed the Artibonite river, one of the country’s largest, which Haitians used for bathing, washing and drinking. Cholera has so far killed 8,205 Haitians.
If a company dumped lethal waste into a river in the United States, it would be sued for negligence. But there is no legal mechanism for redress against the UN. Immunity protects it from most courts. Although its agreement with Haiti provides for a claims commission to hear grievances, that commission has never been set up. So the lawyers for the cholera claimants brought their petition directly to the secretary-general. They demanded that the UN pay damages, accept responsibility, set up the claims commission and build the sewage systems that Haiti lacks.
Although the UN’s legal office took 15 months to declare itself beyond the reach of the claims, it offered little explanation. Its letter to the claimants’ lawyers said “consideration of these claims would necessarily involve a review of political and policy matters.” So is dumping faeces in rivers UN policy? The answer seems to be, as one of the claimants’ lawyers put it: “We make the rules, we interpret them, we enforce them, and therefore, whatever we say is right.” That sounds a bit like Haiti under Mr Duvalier.