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A Convention on the Immunities of Global Power

Once the richest colony in the world, Haiti was the wellspring bearing three quarters of the world’s sugar and was the frontrunner of the cotton industry. But a history of foreign intrusion led by imperialist forces such as Spain, France and the U.S. has whittled the nation down to being the poorest country in the Western hemisphere.

The latest perpetrator, however, embodies a new breed of geopolitical trespassing. In 2010, an epidemic of cholera hit Haiti. With 8,000 civilians dead and another 647,000 infected, public health investigations were deployed to probe for the root of the outbreak. The results? Evidence from investigatory reports strongly suggests that the United Nations is to blame.

Prior to 2010, cases of cholera had never been reported in Haiti. But after the devastating earthquake in January, UN peacekeepers from Nepal coming to “protect stability and prevent the spread of disease” completely undercut their benevolent intentions and  introduced the diarrheal illness to the country by dumping sewage, thereby contaminating, the Meye Tributary of the Artibonite River.

And while the tragedy has thrown the United Nations under the glare of the international public eye, secretary general Ban Ki-moon denies culpability. Arguing that the epidemic is a result of a “confluence of circumstances,” such as poor sanitation and public health, the UN has refused to accept responsibility, falling back on the diplomatic immunity afforded by the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations, which provides the organization legal protection in the countries within which it is engaged. Under section 29, all UN workers operating in a diplomatic capacity are granted impunity.

Defenders of Ban Ki-moon’s decision assert that appeals to the Convention are imperative, as they work to safeguard UN workers from the “whims of local politicians and judges.” Furthermore, they argue that “immunity for the UN soldiers [is] a necessity to protect international development and disaster efforts in the future.”

But claims that the United Nations’ recourse to international law serves to protect development are dubious at best. Rather, the Convention provides a legal smokescreen allowing the organization to eschew moral responsibility and to continue imposing its own initiatives. Backing the rejection of legal claims for compensation brought in by the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), Ban Ki-moon’s spokesperson said such claims were “not receivable” in light of the UN’s immunity. The suit had called upon the organization to “install a national water and sanitation system to control the epidemic, pay compensation to victims for their losses, and make a public apology for its ‘wrongful acts’.”

Meanwhile, Partners in Health, Haiti’s primary non-state healthcare provider, has made appeals to the United Nations to make a serious investment in its anti-cholera initiative. This project aims to develop both cholera treatment programs and to improve Haiti’s water and sanitation infrastructure. The United Nations has, in response, promised a contribution of $23.5 million. This, however, constitutes 1 percent of the total costs. The UN’s peacekeeping budget for the upcoming year sheds a doleful light on its priorities: $648 million.

Haiti shoulders the brunt of moral failure brought by a new type of international power: the magnanimous protector of “we the peoples.”

 – M. Polar


(Featured image: AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike markyturner, Creative Commons, Flickr)

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