Trump Won’t Pay a Penny For U.N. Cholera Relief Fund in Haiti
Washington set to reject the U.N. chief’s latest appeal for money to tend to Haiti’s cholera victims.
The Trump administration will rebuff a recent U.N. appeal to contribute millions of dollars to a cash-short trust fund established last year to provide relief to victims of a cholera epidemic that has killed more than 9,000 Haitians and sickened more than 800,000 more, according to U.S. and U.N. officials.
The move will be the latest blow to U.N. efforts to raise $400 million dollars from member states to provide assistance to the Haitian victims of cholera. The disease is widely believed to have been introduced into Haiti more than six years ago by infected U.N. Nepalese peacekeepers. Since the fund was set up in October, the U.N. has collected only a pittance, about $2.7 million, from Britain, Chile, France, India, Liechtenstein, South Korea and Sri Lanka.
The Trump administration has not contributed a penny to the fund, and it has no intention of doing so in the future, according to U.S. and U.N. officials. The administration has argued that it is not responsible for the epidemic, which it blames on U.N. incompetence and the Nepalese peacekeepers. Further, the United States already contributes more assistance to Haiti — more than $4.2 billion since the catastrophic 2010 earthquake — than any other country.
But legal experts and human rights advocates say the United States — which led international efforts to send a U.N. mission to Haiti in the first place — is shirking its share of responsibility for the acts of blue helmets.
“The U.S. government has not just washed its own hands of all responsibility, but has been the prime mover in insisting that the U.N. must not accept the legal responsibility which is clearly has,” said Philip Alston, a professor of international law at New York University who also serves as the U.N. Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.
Alston, who conducted a lengthy inquiry into the international response to the Haiti crisis, maintains that U.S. urged the United Nations not to accept legal culpability for the cholera epidemic, fearing its could impose billions of dollars in costs on the United States and other U.N. member states.
“By pushing the U.N. from the beginning to deny responsibility [for the outbreak] in spite of overwhelming evidence, the U.S. government has been the key player in denying justice to the victims and in giving the U.N. complete and impunity for clear wrongdoing,” Alston said.
The cholera epidemic could stand as the dark legacy of a U.N. stability effort in Haiti that is scheduled to wrap up in October, when U.N. peacekeepers will leave the troubled island nation.
Haiti had not recorded a single outbreak of cholera in modern times, if ever, when Haitians living near a tributary of the Artibonite river near the village of Mirebalais suddenly began falling sick in October 2010. The disease was traced to a leaky sewage system in the U.N.’s encampment at Mirebalais, which housed a contingent of Nepalese peacekeepers who had recently deployed from Kathmandu. Exacerbated by the hemisphere’s worst sanitation system — only 58 percent of Haitians have access to safe water, and only 28 percent have access to toilets — the disease spread rapidly.
Despite evidence that the Haiti’s cholera matched a strain detected in Nepal, the U.N. for more than six years denied responsibility for causing the epidemic. Facing intense pressure to acknowledge responsibility, former U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon issued a formal apology to the Haitian people late last year for the U.N.’s role in the outbreak, saying the U.N. and its member states had a “moral obligation” to relieve the Haitian suffering.
To that end, he established a trust fund to prevent the further spread of cholera — through vaccines and improvements of sanitation — and to meet the needs of the victims and their families most directly affected by the epidemic. But significantly, Ban never acknowledged any U.N. legal obligation to compensate Haiti’s victims, leaving it to states to decide on their own whether to provide aid.
That’s made it hard for the U.N. to fill the relief fund.
In an effort to secure money, the U.N. appealed to private donors, even asking U.N. staff to donate money to the Haitian cause.
“The response fund offers an opportunity for each of us to do our part to help end the scourge of cholera and support those Haitians most affected by it,” Jan Eliasson, then U.N. Deputy Secretary General, wrote in a December 2 email to staff. But such private donations amount to just over $6,000.
Last month, U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres appealed to U.N. members to allow him to redirect into the fund about $40 million in overpayments to the U.N. mission in Haiti during 2015 and 2016.
Guterres was hoping that the U.N. Security Council would adopt a resolution that authorized the depositing of such funds in the cholera trust fund. But the proposal faced pushback from several countries, including France, which has already made a voluntary contribution of over $600,000, and the United States.
“The U.S. has been keeping quiet, and it’s not clear to us what their position is going to be on this,” said one official at the U.N. But two other officials said that the United States has already decided not to contribute.
The United States wants the U.N. chief to issue a formal memo — known as a ‘note verbale’ — inviting states to commit their portion of the money to the fund. That way, Washington could skirt blame for blocking the U.N. Secretary General’s plan outright, while not undertaking any binding commitment to contribute.
Democratic and Republican lawmakers, including Senators Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) had criticized the Obama administration and the United Nations for failing to ensure Haiti’s victims were compensated by the United Nations.
“The U.N. continues to refuse to even discuss providing compensation for the losses incurred by those killed and sickened by the cholera brought to Haiti,” they wrote in a June 2016 letter to then-Secretary of State John Kerry. “We are deeply concerned that the State Department’s failure to 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 U.N.”
That tottering commitment has only weakened, said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), the ranking member of the appropriations subcommittee that funds U.S. foreign assistance programs, including contributions to U.N. peacekeeping and humanitarian relief programs.
“What happened in Haiti was a travesty, and yet even after the U.N. belatedly agreed to provide compensation to the victims, the United States and others that share responsibility for the peacekeepers have done nothing,” Leahy told FP.
“If U.N. accountability, which the Trump Administration has called for, stands for anything, it means helping the families of the thousand of Haitians who died as a result of U.N. negligence and through no fault of their own.
The Trump administration is not alone in trying to sidestep financial responsibility for the Haiti cholera epidemic. Under the Obama Administration, U.S. diplomats in New York made it clear to U.N. counterparts that they would not go to Congress to seek billions of dollars in potential compensation costs.
The message from senior U.S. officials to their U.N. counterparts in New York was “basically, you guys created this problem, you sort it out,” a former senior U.N. official told FP.
That was one Obama policy that found support from the incoming Trump administration.
Though Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, initially said in her confirmation hearings that the U.N. should be held accountable, she quickly walked that back.
In a written response to questions from senators, Haley said that while she would try to mobilize international support for Haiti cholera relief, she needed to “better understand the legal and financial implications of U.N. compensation and restitution before endorsing such a policy.”
Haley declined through a spokesperson to comment. But the United States has made it clear behind the scenes that it does not intend to pitch in.
Mona Khalil, a former U.N. lawyer who serves as a legal advisor to Independent Diplomat, said it is time for those responsible for the cholera outbreak to take responsibility, including the Nepalese peacekeepers, the contractors who built a leaky sewage system, and senior U.S. and U.N. officials who blocked efforts to find a remedy for the victims.
“The Haitian people are owed compensation; they are not owed charity,” she said.
Photo credit: HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images
Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch