A group of fourteen United Nations independent experts released a statement today calling on Secretary-General António Guterres to fulfill the UN’s 2016 promise to take responsibility and deliver justice for the 10,000 victims of a cholera epidemic caused by UN peacekeepers in Haiti in 2010. The statement, which can be read on the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights website and below, indicates that the experts have also sent a formal communication to the Secretary-General. The intervention demonstrates escalating concern within the UN’s own human rights system that the organization is failing to uphold its obligations to cholera victims. The communication is remarkable for its unprecedented breadth of support from the UN’s own experts in raising allegations that the organization itself is violating human rights.

The statement and communication from the UN experts was prompted by a formal complaint filed in February from Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic, Haiti-based human rights law firm Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI), and its U.S.-based partner organization, the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti (IJDH). The formal complaint called on the UN “Special Procedure” system, a group of UN-appointed human rights experts charged with reporting and advising on human rights issues worldwide, to investigate the violations linked to the UN’s response to introducing cholera to Haiti and a subsequent lack of reparations and fulfillment of legal obligations. Signees to the April 30, 2020 letter from UN Special Procedures included experts whose tenures as mandate holders ends today, including Philip Alston, Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights as well as Leilani Farha, Special Rapporteur on adequate housing. This intervention marks one of the last actions by them in their capacity as mandate-holders.

UN inaction denies justice for Haiti cholera victims, say UN experts

GENEVA (30 April 2020) — A group of independent UN rights experts today called on Secretary-General António Guterres to urgently step up efforts to fulfill a United Nations pledge to help victims of a cholera epidemic in Haiti that killed over 10,000 victims.

“The importance of relief is even more urgent in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, which could deal a double blow to victims of the cholera outbreak and their families,” the experts said. “We recognise the immense challenges all actors face in responding to the coronavirus, but this new threat cannot mask past failures and ongoing violations.”

The experts said more than three years ago, the UN acknowledged the role played by its peacekeepers in causing the epidemic. It has since failed to pay any compensation and its subsequent underfunded aid effort has amounted to little more than a spate of symbolic development projects.

“Serious shortfalls in funding and expenditures make the UN’s promises illusory. Despite initially seeking $400 million over two years, the UN has raised a mere $20.5 million in about three years and has spent a pitiful $3.2 million. This is a deeply disappointing showing following the loss of 10,000 lives,” they said. 

The experts also raised concerns about the UN’s decision to help people affected by cholera through community assistance rather than direct support. “Some victims prefer monetary payments, an option that was once on the table, but the UN has foreclosed that possibility seemingly without carrying out consultations or producing a detailed feasibility assessment,” said the experts. “Compensation is ordinarily a central component of the right to an effective remedy, and development projects are simply not a replacement for reparations”.

The experts have received reports that victims have not been adequately involved in the design and development of community assistance projects. “While the UN says it is consulting with multi-stakeholder ‘community platforms’ to develop projects, it is not clear how those most affected by cholera are being prioritised in these exercises.”

In a 2016 report to the UN General Assembly, the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, called on the UN to accept its legal responsibility for the outbreak and provide appropriate remedies.

“Many of these shortcomings result from the UN’s admission of its ‘moral responsibility’ but not its legal one,” said the experts. “Asking UN Member States to make a charitable contribution is entirely different from payments linked to a legal obligation,” they added.

“Haiti’s Government has its own options to seek justice for victims, such as requesting an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice,” the experts said. “To our knowledge, it has taken no steps in that direction.”

The experts conveyed their concerns in writing to the UN Secretary-General and the Government of Haiti.


*The experts:Mr. Philip Alston, Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rightsMs E. Tendayi Achiume, Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intoleranceMs. Leilani Farha, Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, and on the right to non-discrimination in this context; Mr. Léo HellerSpecial Rapporteur on the human rights to water and sanitationMr. Obiora C. Okafor, Independent Expert on human rights and international solidarityMr. Dainius PūrasSpecial Rapporteur on the right to physical and mental healthMr. Ahmed Reid (Chair), Ms. Dominique Day, Mr. Michal  Balcerzak, Mr. Ricardo A. Sunga III, and Mr. Sabelo GumedzeWorking Group of experts on people of African descentMr. Livingstone SewanyanaIndependent Expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order; Mr. Baskut Tuncak, Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes; Mr. Fabián Salvioli, Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence.