minor field study human rights

Investigating the UN’s Responsibility in the Haitian Cholera Outbreak


Last spring, Alice Wadström traveled to Haiti as a recipient of a minor field study scholarship sponsored by Swedish development cooperation and awarded by the Raoul Wallenberg Institute.

She traveled to Haiti to do research for her Master’s thesis in International Human Rights Law on the cholera epidemic in that country and the compatibility of the UN’s response with international human rights legal standards for reparation.

We recently sat down with her to ask a few questions about that work.

Why did you pick Haiti? How did you get interested in it?

I decided to write about a topic related to the UN’s responsibility in peacekeeping operations, and was intrigued by a statement in July 2014 made by the Secretary-General at the time, Ban Ki-moon, referencing the United Nations’ moral responsibility towards the Haitian people with regards to the cholera epidemic that erupted in Haiti in 2010.

It brought me to start researching how the content of such a moral responsibility could be defined and how it would apply to the UN in this particular case, in light of the debates on the organizations’ legal responsibility that have arisen with the claims for remedy in connection to the cholera epidemic. These questions are what inspired me to do field research in Haiti and apply for the SIDA-funded Minor Field Study grant from the Raoul Wallenberg Institute.

What did you determine in your thesis?

After claims for reparation filed by cholera victims were deemed non-receivable in the UN’s internal claims settlement process, and the UN’s immunities were upheld by a United States Federal Appeals Court, the United Nations announced that more needed to be done with regards to the cholera epidemic and its victims. In December 2016, the Secretary-General issued a public apology to the Haitian population, spoke of the Organization’s “role” in the initial cholera outbreak, and presented a “New Approach to cholera in Haiti” , that intends to intensify general support, and provide targeted support to cholera victims.

While the UN’s legal responsibility is not engaged, the organization is suggesting to provide assistance packages, motivated by the moral responsibility of the UN towards the Haitian population. My thesis focused on an assessment of the compatibility of the ‘New Approach’ with standards for reparation under International Human Rights Law and the impact of the recognition of moral responsibility on these rights.

I found that, theoretically, the most crucial aspects of the cholera victims’ right to reparation can be ensured by the New Approach, even in the absence of admission of legal responsibility by the UN. In practice however, the aspects of the assistance package that are vital to complying with reparation standards under human rights law may never be implemented due to the severe underfunding of the ‘New Approach’ .

That’s why, in practice, it is problematic that the ‘New Approach’ is defined as an act of good will and that its implementation does not constitute a legal obligation. In the end, the cholera victims may benefit from nothing more than assistance that does not substantially differ from regular development projects: such as construction of irrigation systems and local medical centers.

Moreover, because of lack of funding, the UN is not consulting with victims about their preferences, so as not to give false hope. However, international human rights law emphasize the importance of participation in the reparation process. Reparation can be made in different forms (restitution or compensation for example), but individual, and monetary, reparation is usually preferable over collective forms of reparation.

How did your field study contribute to your master thesis in International Human Rights Law at Lund University?

Carrying out the field study in Haiti and writing about legal standards for reparation was great because I got to analyze the interrelationship of public international law and human rights law, to what extent the UN is bound by international human rights law, and what the consequences are for the claimants in this case.

It gave me an opportunity to analyze the claims made against the UN in the light of the knowledge I’ve acquired through my LLM studies at Lund University and the Raoul Wallenberg Institute.

More specifically, victim’s rights represented an important dimension of my thesis topic, so the field study added value to the analysis in that I could interview people who were directly affected by the cholera epidemic, and ask them what they thought of the different forms of assistance suggested by the UN’s ‘New Approach’.

In addition to what it added to the conclusion, it was important to me to meet some of the cholera victims in person and attempt to give them a voice in the study. The cholera victims are rarely heard in media and there is a considerable distance between them and the decision makers who have the power to affect their lives.

What was the most challenging? What did you learn?

At first, it was difficult to get in contact with the people I needed to interview for the field study. In Haiti, the UN’s role is heavily criticized or even perceived as an occupying force by some and the cholera epidemic is a sensitive topic, among both the Haitian population and UN employees. The breakthrough came when I managed to get in touch with Mario Joseph at the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux  in Port-au-Prince, who is one of the foremost human rights lawyers, not to say the foremost human rights lawyer, in Haiti. He advocates on behalf of the cholera victims and seeing the work he does to defend their rights showed me the reality of the struggle of those affected by the epidemic to get back on their feet, and how important it is for their right to reparation to be upheld, regardless of absence of legal responsibility of the UN, and especially with regards to the justice-mandate of the former and current peacekeeping operation in place.

Haiti is a remarkable country that left me with a desire to learn more about its people, culture, music and more. It’s also a country that surprised me and challenged me on many levels. The Haitian society is extremely segregated and can be difficult to navigate for an outsider. Literally, and figuratively speaking. A former government official told me that “Haiti is known to be a poor country, but it isn’t true – the wealthy in Haiti are immensely rich”. One can tell that the social and racial segregation echoes Haiti’s history of slavery and colonial rule. The inequalities in Haiti are dramatic, and seeing it firsthand course leaves you with a feeling of injustice.

For security reasons, people don’t go just anywhere at any time in Port-au-Prince. It wasn’t easy for me to get my head around it, as I received quite contradictory advice from people I asked about where I could and couldn’t go, and how I should get around. I adopted a kind of middle way. For example, the “moto-taxis” – motor-bike taxis – really are not the safest, but it was such a fun way to get around – daytime!