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Adrian Walker

Local nonprofit up against the UN for Haiti

Most of us will go through life without ever making this discovery, but Brian Concannon has learned something interesting in the past few months: Suing the United Nations is really hard to do.

It isn’t that winning a suit against the UN is just difficult; it’s that a victory is almost impossible. Even serving legal documents on its New York headquarters is harder than one might think. “It’s a huge game of cat-and-mouse,” Concannon said the other day, sitting in his Andrew Square office. “You take it to headquarters, they won’t let you in. You mail it return receipt and they won’t acknowledge that they have received it.”

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Concannon is head of a Boston-based nonprofit called the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti. For a year, the institute has been trying to bring attention to — and get action on — the scourge of cholera in Haiti. Concannon’s work has gotten the UN’s attention.

The basic facts are not really disputed, not even by the UN. A peacekeeping force from Nepal introduced cholera into the drinking water following the earthquake that racked Haiti in 2010. For all its ills, Haiti had previously been spared cholera, but no more. In a medical nightmare worsened by chronically inadequate sanitation, cholera has killed an estimated 4,000 Haitians so far — with the emphasis on estimated.

For multiple reasons, no one is certain of the exact total, Concannon said. Some victims in rural areas never make it to the hospitals that could authoritatively establish their causes of death. Because cholera victims are supposed to be buried in mass graves, some families decline to disclose the cause of death so their loved ones can be buried in a family plot. Concannon’s institute believes that public hospitals have been ordered not to release information on cholera cases as a direct reaction to the lawsuit.

Ultimately, Concannon said he believes that the UN — which enjoys broad immunity from lawsuits — has resorted to the strategy of acknowledging the widespread incidence of cholera, while downplaying its culpability.

“I call it the ‘rope-a-dope’ strategy,” Concannon said. “Usually, they take their hit. They acknowledge there’s a problem. They never give the victim any justice, but they know the story will eventually go away. The problem is, the strategy doesn’t work anymore. This is 2014 and things have changed.”

Indeed, the cholera-in-Haiti story has become something of an international cause. Publications as far-flung as The New York Times, The Economist, and Le Monde have weighed in, calling for intervention. There is an engaged Twitter constituency. The Haitian diaspora, in Boston and elsewhere, has taken notice. The story has not gone away.

One group that appears unmoved is the Haitian government. It has been virtually silent about the tragedy. The UN’s continuing investment in Haiti could be a factor in that.

Under pressure, the United Nations has floated a $2.2 billion plan to clean up the water supply in Haiti. The UN says it is in the process of appointing a commission that might oversee said plan. Appointing members is expected to take until April. The UN isn’t famous for its sense of urgency.

Still, an activist group working out of a quiet former convent in South Boston believes it can somehow hold Goliath accountable, or at least spur it to action.

“They wouldn't have a plan and they wouldn’t have a commission without pressure,” Concannon said. “I think you’re going to hear a lot more about this.”

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.
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