When an international organization screws up, who’s responsible? The answer, too often, is no one. And if it’s the United Nations that’s at fault, and it does pay up, guess what? It’s your money they fork over.
The earthquake that hit Haiti in January 2010 killed at least 100,000 people. Later that month, President Barack Obama hailed Americans “working with many nations to help the people of Haiti recover and rebuild.”
But for many Haitians, that help was deadly. Before the earthquake, there was no cholera in Haiti. But shortly after UN peacekeepers arrived, a cholera epidemic broke out.
Since then, 770,000 people have been infected, and 9,200 have died. Doctors traced the disease to a peacekeeping team from Nepal. As the UN has taken on more missions, it has relied more on contributing nations like Nepal. But poor sanitation by the Nepalese allowed sewage — human waste — carrying cholera to flow into a river, and then downstream. Hundreds were infected, and the disease spread across Haiti.
If you don’t know much about cholera, you’re lucky. It’s often caused by contaminated drinking water. The bacteria causes acute diarrhea, which can lead in hours to severe dehydration, vomiting, muscle cramps, and death.
So far, the UN has spent $140 million to control the outbreak, a fraction of what will be needed to eliminate the disease. For years, it denied it played a role in the epidemic.
The result was a lawsuit against the UN on behalf of Haitian victims by U.S. and Haitian human rights groups. But in 2015, a federal judge ruled that the UN was immune from lawsuits, and last week, an appeals court panel agreed.
The problem is that the UN operates under the U.S. International Organizations Immunities Act of 1945. Many of the immunities that international organizations receive under the act are standard diplomatic practice: free passage of baggage, for example. But organizations also receive exemption from lawsuits related to their work, unless they chose to waive it.
So far, the UN, which belatedly acknowledged it played a role in the epidemic, hasn’t done this. Thus, the U.S. government, which is charged with upholding the act, is responsible for defending the UN from Haiti’s cholera victims in front of U.S. judges.
The easy answer is to end the UN’s immunities. But as satisfying as that would be, it’s wrong. The UN’s record is very mixed, but as my colleague Brett Schaefer points out, eliminating its immunities would only encourage it to focus single-mindedly on its New York-based bureaucracy.
Moreover, making the UN pay isn’t simple. Its money comes from member nations, and the United States pays about 29 percent of the peacekeeping budget. So if the UN loses its case — and, morally, it deserves to lose — the money to pay the bill won’t come from Nepal. Nor will it come from the salary of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Instead, it will come from taxpayers in Japan, Germany, Britain — and, especially, the United States. Is it fair to make you pay for Nepal’s sewage?
The United States can urge the UN to provide more protections for whistleblowers, establish independent internal oversight, and hold countries contributing peacekeeping troops responsible for their failures. But the basic problem is that the UN is doing too much — and doing it badly.
The problem of accountability will endure, as will the cholera in Haiti. That won’t be eliminated for years, if ever, and the victims will likely never be fairly compensated. The UN will start doing better only if it does less. And that’s why turning to the UN is often, though not always, the wrong answer.
Ted R. Bromund is a senior research fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s Thatcher Center for Freedom.