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Haiti in the Time of Cholera

International pushes for justice and reparations heat up

by Matthew Davidson

A 2009 demonstration against MINUSTAH. Banner reads  "Long Live Haiti Without Occupation. Justice And Reparations For The Victims Of Cholera." Photo by Ansel Herz, Creative Commons 2.0.
A 2009 demonstration against MINUSTAH. Banner reads "Long Live Haiti Without Occupation. Justice And Reparations For The Victims Of Cholera." Photo by Ansel Herz, Creative Commons 2.0.

PETERBOROUGH, ONTARIO—The deadly disease was previously unknown on the island, but in October 2010 doctors in Haiti began to recognize the telltale signs of cholera among their patients. Cholera, which causes acute watery diarrhea and can kill in a matter of hours, quickly spread across the country after a first outbreak caused by poor sanitation at a United Nations peacekeeping base contaminated Haiti's largest river.

Haitians are looking for restitution and reparations for the cholera outbreak, hoping to find justice in world courts. They’re also using international courts to push for justice around the country’s odious debt.

Lawyers from the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), which represents 5,000 Haitian cholera victims, gave notice to the United Nations in May that it had sixty days to respond adequately to a complaint first issued in November 2011. The IJDH now intends to file lawsuits in various national courts after the UN again refused on July 5th to accept the complaint.

Alleging that the United Nations Mission to Stabilize Haiti (MINUSTAH) peacekeeping force is responsible for introducing the previously unknown disease of cholera into Haiti, the 2011 complaint demanded that the United Nations install a national water and sanitation system to control the epidemic, compensate individual victims of cholera for their losses and issue a public apology. The UN  has repeatedly denied that it had any responsibility for the medical crisis. Over 8,300 Haitians have died and more than 680,000 have taken ill since cholera was introduced to Haiti in October 2010.

Days after the cholera action was renewed, lawyers from one of France's leading anti-racism organizations filed legal proceedings against the Caisse des Dépôts (CDC), a French state-owned bank, seeking reparations for the indemnity that Haiti had to pay to their former slave owners two centuries earlier. The Representative Council of Black Associations (CRAN) initiated legal proceedings on May 13 of this year against the bank after French President François Hollande refused to consider any form of reparations for France's history of slavery and colonialism.

The lawsuits followed respective refusals by the UN and France to acknowledge that they had any role in shaping Haiti's current reality. Both are potentially precedent-setting cases that will force foreign powers to pay reparations for the devastation they wrought upon Haiti. If successful, the cases will each set a new standard of accountability for colonial crimes, both new and old.

Brian Concannon, Director of the IJDH, told The Dominion over the phone that "any country supporting peacekeeping missions will be held to a higher standard when it comes to protecting vulnerable populations" if his organization's lawsuit is successful. "Claiming responsibility would set a precedent that the UN has a legal accountability for various things that its forces do around the world," he said.

The French lawsuit deals with a more historic matter, but CRAN hopes that it too can set a new standard through its legal advocacy. "Our goal is clear: the return of [the] 21 billion dollars extorted from the Republic of Haiti," Luis-Georges Tin, CRAN’s president, told The Dominion.

Haiti was a French colony until a slave revolution overthrew white control in 1804. France demanded an indemnity of 150 million francs to reimburse slave owners for their loss of property—in this case, enslaved people—before Haiti was recognized as an independent country. CRAN accuses the CDC of profiting from those damages, which are estimated to be equivalent to at least $21 billion in today's dollars. "This is the bank where the money was deposited, which is why we are attacking it in the courts," Tin explained to The Dominion over email.

In order to afford the levy, which had been imposed under threat of a new invasion, Haiti had to borrow funds from French banks at highly unfavourable terms. It took 122 years (until 1947) to finish paying the indemnity. Haiti made the payments faithfully until that time, even during the 19 years that Haiti was occupied by the United States. The payments were made at the expense of other government functions, such as sanitation and health.

In October 2012, Tin claimed, the French government promised that a ministerial meeting would be held the following month to consider a policy of reparations. CRAN's president said that his organization was forced to pursue a settlement in the courts after the government refused to fulfill that promise. A press release quoted Tin as saying "Without a political solution, we conduct the debate on the legal plane."

Concannon said that his organization had similarly hoped for a solution that didn't involve the courts. When cholera's origin in Haiti was traced to improper sewage disposal at a MINUSTAH base near the Artibonite River, "there were calls for action from our Haitian partners, but we thought initially that what Haiti really needs is doctors," Concannon told The Dominion. "It wasn't a good use of resources for lawyers to get involved."

That changed after the UN's own investigative report into the matter was made public in May 2011. "It looked like a whitewash…. There were 29 pages of facts pointing to the UN, with the thirtieth page saying don't pay attention to the previous pages," said Concannon.

While the report does find that the source of the cholera outbreak was the Mirebalais MINUSTAH camp, it argues that "the introduction of this cholera strain as a result of environmental contamination with feces could not have been the source of such an outbreak without simultaneous water and sanitation and health care system deficiencies." As such, the UN report found that no single group was responsible for the outbreak.

With its sister organization in Haiti, the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI), the IJDH signed 5,000 victims of cholera onto a class action complaint, which was delivered to the UN in November 2011. "The UN took 15 months to respond formally," noted Concannon.

In February of this year, the UN rejected the complaint, stating that it was not receivable pursuant to Section 29 of the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations.

After being presented with the IJDH's ultimatum the UN again rejected the complaint on July 5, saying that there is no basis for engagement on the issue. . “We now have no choice but to take the UN to court to stop cholera’s killing and seek justice for victims and their families,” Concannon indicated in a July 8 press release.

"The UN has an entrenched culture of impunity, at odds with its own ideals about the rule of law," Concannon told The Dominion. He says that it is clear that the world body has been hiding its involvement in bringing cholera to Haiti.

Canadian writer Yves Engler concurs. "The lawsuit is clearly a rebuke of the UN's specific ambivalence towards Haitian life," he told The Dominion over the phone. "The cholera lawsuit is a pretty direct indictment of Canadian policy in Haiti, given that MINUSTAH's presence in Haiti stems from the 2004 coup against President [Jean-Bertrand] Aristide, which Canada supported," said Engler.

Canada in Haiti: Waging War on the Poor Majority, which Engler co-wrote, describes how Canada helped orchestrate the overthrow of Haiti's democratically elected president in 2004. "The point of the 2004 coup was to stamp out a movement that made minimal moves toward a more just Haiti," he told The Dominion.

The book also details how MINUSTAH, widely seen as an occupying force in Haiti, was used to prevent Aristide's party, Lavalas, from taking part in the subsequent elections, disenfranchising Haiti's vast poor majority. On June 20, 2013, Canada announced that another platoon of Canadian soldiers was being sent to Haiti to reinforce MINUSTAH forces.

Haiti solidarity activist Isabel Macdonald suggested that the coup and the reparations issue are connected. One of the moves that Aristide made prior to his ousting was to press France to pay reparations for the indemnity Haiti paid in 1825. "Soon after, Aristide was overthrown in a coup supported by France, the USA and Canada," said Macdonald.

Macdonald thinks that Aristide's call was received very badly by the French government. Though she is not optimistic about the new case succeeding, she thinks it is hugely significant.

"This opens up the broader question of reparations even beyond Haiti," said Macdonald. That also happens to be exactly what CRAN intended.

CRAN is seeking to have the Caisse des Dépôts, which was created in 1816, pay 10 million euros (CAD$13 million) to fund research and education on France's colonial history. Specifically, CRAN is hoping to have French textbooks updated to explain the consequences of French imperialism. The group also hopes to see a slavery museum built in France.

The organization expects the French government to delay the lawsuit in the courts for as long as possible, so no resolution is expected any time soon. At press time the IJDH continued to prepare their case, which they expected to file in New York and Europe.

Regardless of what happens with the case, "Countries that are donors to Haiti are eventually going to have to come up with the money to address cholera," Concannon told The Dominion. He also noted that the solution need not come from a court order.

"Haitians are asking that countries like Canada that are investing in unneeded peacekeeping forces, in a country that has never had a war in our lifetime, reinvest that money into health and sanitation projects instead."

Matthew Davidson is a graduate student at Trent University. His research focuses on health, development and imperialism in Haiti.

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