When a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti in 2010, the country was poorly equipped to deal with the damage. Haiti is one of the poorest nations in the world, and greater than 59 percent of Haitians live below the national poverty line of USD$2.42 per day. Along with a struggling economy, Haiti lacked building codes when the earthquake struck in 2010, causing buildings to collapse and kill hundreds of thousands of civilians. Haiti was evidently unable to remedy the damage itself, so international aid came pouring in from NGOs and the United Nations.

When international aid workers entered the country, an epidemic erupted that would plague the country for years. Thousands of Haitians became infected with cholera, a waterborne illness that causes severe vomiting and diarrhea and that can lead to extreme dehydration without proper treatment. The cholera outbreak was traced back to infected U.N. peacekeepers from Nepal whose sewage contaminated the Artibonite River, which is a source of water for many Haitians. With poor sanitation infrastructure and a dire lack of oral rehydration therapies (ORTs) to combat the cholera epidemic, the disease spread rapidly, killing over 9,000 individuals. Although cholera is an easily curable disease that requires little more than intense rehydration, it can wreak havoc on a country lacking the resources to offer care. Prior to the earthquake, Haiti’s healthcare system could not provide for the population’s health needs, and the earthquake destroyed 50 healthcare centers and the Ministry of Health building, further aggravating this system. Amid the destruction caused by Hurricane Matthew in early October of 2016, the threat of cholera worsened, and destruction caused by the hurricane undid much of the sanitation progress the U.N. had made in Haiti since 2010.

Health workers carry the body of a cholera victim in Petionville, Haiti, in February of 2011. Photo Credit: David Gilkey/NPR

Although the United Nations had good intentions when entering Haiti, it caused a major health crisis and failed to take responsibility for its negligent actions for many years. The U.N. did not accept any responsibility for the epidemic, despite convincing DNA data, until August of 2016, six years after the initial outbreak. The U.N., however, stopped short of claiming full responsibility for the epidemic. Former U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has acknowledged that the U.N. played a role in the outbreak, but didn’t go so far as to claim full responsibility. When victims of the outbreak attempted to sue the United Nations, the organization claimed immunity from international lawsuits.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon apologizes for the cholera epidemic in Haiti.

Since the U.N. was founded, the organization has held certain rights of immunity to allow it to carry out its role as a peacekeeping body and protect it from any prosecution that may interfere with its functions and involvement in emergency situations. Under the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations (CPIUN), the United Nations will be held accountable for private law claims, but can invoke immunity for public law claims. In the Haitian cholera case, the U.N. perceived the claims as of a public nature and therefore “not receivable” under the CPIUN.

In 1948, the United Nations General Assembly created the Universal Proclamation of Human Rights (UDHR) in order to create a standard of fundamental human rights that should be universally protected. While the U.N. generally strives to protect human rights, the organization’s poor handling of the events in Haiti, as well as in Kosovo, undercuts this goal. New York University Law professor and human rights adviser to the U.N., Philip Alston, explained that the United Nations’ refusal to acknowledge responsibility for the cholera outbreak in Haiti or make reparations to victims “upholds a double standard according to which the U.N. insists that member states respect human rights, while rejecting any such responsibility for itself.” In failing to take responsibility for its actions and refusing to take part in lawsuits, the United Nations undermines its credibility and creates a hostile double standard for human rights. The U.N. is a crucial organization that plays a significant role in emergency situations, yet its apparent ineptitude and lamentable handling of its errors reflect poorly on the organization and elicit an untouchable attitude. The United Nations displayed unprofessionalism in both failing to properly screen peacekeepers for cholera and in constructing “haphazard sanitation facilities” within the U.N. base. The organization then proceeded to withhold recognition of wrongdoing for several years, despite overwhelming evidence of culpability. Not only do these actions make the U.N. appear amateurish, but they also go against the fundamental values of the organization.

Perhaps the most distressing aspect of the cholera outbreak in Haiti is its legacy. Many Haitians are poor and live in remote areas. They don’t understand the importance of boiling their water to kill the bacteria, causing cholera to spread rapidly. They lack access to clinics, or they find overcrowded clinics with overworked nurses and a shortage of needles for IVs. They lack proper sanitation infrastructure to safely dispose of their waste and prevent it from leaking into communal water sources or spreading throughout the country during the rainy season. Not only are these Haitians victims of a disease that could take years to eradicate, but they are also the victims of the United Nations’ inconsistent moral authority.

The Haitian cholera incident was not the first time the United Nations invoked immunity for its actions. In the Kosovo Lead Poisoning case of 1999, Roma peoples who were displaced by the war with Serbia were exposed to high levels of lead at temporary U.N. camps for five years, despite concerns from the World Health Organization (WHO) about the toxicity of the environment. Several of the camps were located just meters away from piles of industrial waste generated by mining activity. Studies conducted in 2005 of Roma hair samples showed dangerously high levels of lead, which can cause severe damage to the central nervous system and impair growth. Although a U.N. human rights advisory panel released a 79-page opinion explaining that the U.N. Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) should issue an apology and provide compensation for the irreversible damage caused by negligent U.N. actions, the U.N. merely expressed regret and failed to provide any financial compensation.

In both the Haitian cholera incident and the Kosovo Lead Poisoning case, the U.N. used its powers to escape accountability for its mistakes, causing vulnerable communities in Haiti and Kosovo to essentially forfeit their rights to prosecute an institution that meant to do them good, but in the end, did more harm. Under Articles 7 and 8 of the UDHR, individuals are entitled to “equal protection of the law” and, in warranted situations, “effective remedy.” The United Nations acknowledges the importance of equal protection in a court of law, yet it has made an exception for itself that violates the rights of victims of U.N. peacekeeping efforts. Mistakes inevitably happen in emergency situations, and organizations that voluntarily put themselves in risky situations are bound to make errors. Mistakes are forgivable when they are acknowledged, learned from, and rectified; but it took the United Nations far too long to acknowledge its mistakes in Haiti and Kosovo, and those years of denial prevented the U.N. from taking a step back and truly assessing its execution of emergency efforts in those regions.

The United Nations has made significant progress in admitting its role in the 2010 cholera outbreak in Haiti, but there is still significant work to be done. Although the United Nations invokes immunity to protect itself from a barrage of lawsuits, it must not forgo the values upon which it was built and the values that it aims to instill in governments around the world.