In a broadly-supported bipartisan letter, 158 Members of the U.S. House of Representatives called on the U.S. State Department to “immediately and unreservedly exercise its leadership” to ensure that the UN takes responsibility for the devastating cholera epidemic it caused in Haiti.
The letter, co-sponsored by Representatives Mia Love (R-UT) and John Conyers Jr. (D-MI), enjoys unprecedented bipartisan support. It sends a strong message that Congress expects the UN’s to comply with its legal obligations to provide the victims with access to remedies for the damage inflicted by the epidemic. In a time often characterized by partisan divisions, Congresspersons of both parties are united in insisting on U.S. leadership to hold the UN accountable.
Cholera arrived in Haiti due to improper sewage disposal by UN peacekeepers in 2010, and has killed between 10,000-100,000 people and sickened at least 800,000 in the last five years.
The UN has refused to provide compensation or a fair hearing to victims, and has evaded responsibility. Inadequate funding for elimination efforts has resulted in a worsening epidemic in 2016.
“Haiti’s cholera crisis is a darkening stain on the world’s conscience,” said Rep. Conyers. “The U.S. government cannot watch this crisis unfold from the sidelines. We need to exercise our leadership to make sure that cholera is eliminated and that the UN provides due process and remedies to the victims. The ongoing failure to do so is a travesty for human rights and for the UN’s credibility.”
“The U.S. is the largest financial supporter of the United Nations, and has an important voice at the UN. It is critical that we use our influence to ensure the UN takes responsibility for this outbreak and works to protect the people of Haiti,” said Rep. Love.
The letter signals a groundswell of support in Congress for U.S. leadership to secure UN action on cholera now. Among the 158 signatories are 21 members of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs (HCFA), including Africa, Global Health and International Organizations Subcommittee Chairperson Christopher Smith (R-NJ), former HCFA Chairperson Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), HCFA Ranking Member Eliot Engel (D-NY), Western Hemisphere Subcommittee Ranking Member Albio Sires (D-NJ), and Global Health Ranking Member Karen Bass (D-CA).
Full text of the letter to the State Department is below:
The Honorable John Kerry
United States Secretary of State
Department of State
2201 C Street NW
Washington, D.C. 20520
June 29, 2016
Dear Secretary Kerry,
We write to urge the State Department to immediately and unreservedly exercise its leadership to ensure that the United Nations (UN) take concrete steps to eliminate the cholera epidemic introduced to Haiti in 2010 by waste from a UN peacekeeper camp, and to comply with its legal and moral obligations to provide cholera victims with access to an effective remedy.
A recently revealed internal UN report confirms that the Haiti mission, known as MINUSTAH, was discharging untreated waste into Haiti’s environment from several peacekeeping bases, and continued this unacceptable practice after the cholera outbreak.
The official cumulative death toll since 2010 — nearly 10,000—makes Haiti’s epidemic the worst cholera epidemic of modern times, but recent scientific studies suggest that the true death toll may be three to ten times higher.
Since we last wrote to Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon in December 2014 urging action, the epidemic’s damage to the people of Haiti and to the UN’s credibility has become more catastrophic, while the UN’s response to the emergency has dwindled. Cholera increased in the first three months of 2016 compared to the previous year.
While the deaths, illness, and evidence of malfeasance mounted, UN Assistant Secretary-General Pedro Medrano Rojas, who met with Congress as the UN’s point person for responding to the epidemic, left office in June 2015 and was not replaced. The UN continues to refuse to even discuss providing compensation for the losses incurred by those killed and sickened by the cholera it brought to Haiti, and there is no notable progress in its proclaimed efforts to provide the water and sanitation infrastructure necessary to control the cholera epidemic.
In calling for a more effective response to the UN cholera epidemic, we are joining the weight of world opinion, both inside and outside the UN. Five of the UN’s own human rights experts—four UN Special Rapporteurs and the UN’s Independent Expert on Human Rights in Haiti—wrote to the UN Secretary-General in October 2015 that “it is essential that the victims of cholera have access to a transparent, independent and impartial mechanism that can review their claims and decide on the merits of those claims in order to ensure adequate reparation….” Amnesty International has stressed that “the legacy of the UN in Haiti, and particularly of MINUSTAH, will be greatly determined by the way the United Nations responds to this very important situation.”
In July 2015, 154 Haitian-American groups and leaders from across the United States asked you to ensure that the United States’ support for UN immunity in U.S. courts did not result in impunity for the UN’s damage in Haiti. At a recent hearing in the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, the panel of judges questioned why the State Department had not used its diplomatic powers to press for a more just UN response. A judge asked the U.S. Attorney to concede that the result of leaving the victims without a remedy would be “very, very bad.”
While we do not wish to take a position in the litigation, we are deeply concerned that the State Department’s failure to take more leadership in the diplomatic realm might be perceived by our constituents and the world as a limited commitment to an accountable and credible UN. As the Boston Globe Editorial Board recently wrote, Congress and the Department of State “have a moral duty to lead the way, not follow — outside the courtroom walls.”
Each day that passes without an appropriate UN response is a tragedy for Haitian cholera victims, and a stain on the UN’s reputation. As the Special Rapporteurs stated, “the denial of the fundamental right of the victims of cholera to justice and to an effective remedy is difficult to reconcile with the United Nations’ commitment to ‘promote and encourage respect for human rights.’” We are especially concerned that the UN’s refusal to comply with its legal responsibility for cholera deeply undermines the organizations’ rule of law and democracy-building work throughout the world that American taxpayers support so generously.
Mr. Secretary, we respectfully urge the Department of State to treat the issue of a just and accountable UN response to Haiti’s cholera with the urgency that 10,000-100,000 deaths and catastrophic damage to the UN’s credibility deserves. A just resolution is imperative to protecting the human rights of victims, and to preserving the UN’s role as a champion for human rights.
Your leadership in this noble and urgent endeavor is much appreciated.