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Boston activists win important round in battle with United Nations

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For years Brian Concannon has battled the United Nations from his office in Andrew Square, yet the significant victory he recently won caught him by surprise.

The UN has finally owned up to its role in introducing cholera to Haiti — a public health disaster that has claimed at least 10,000 lives and possibly several times that. That acknowledgement is something human rights lawyers, activists, and Haitian citizens have been seeking for years.

In a statement to the New York Times last week, a spokesman for Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon wrote that, "Over the past year, the UN has become convinced that it needs to do much more regarding its own involvement in the initial outbreak and the suffering of those affected by cholera." The statement added that the UN would announce a plan to address the epidemic within two months.


That admission, although a bit indirect, was vindication for the group Concannon leads, the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH). It has worked tirelessly to push the UN to literally clean up the tragic mess it created when it sent a peacekeeping force to Haiti in 2010. Though its efforts to sue the UN have not been successful in legal terms, they have helped accomplish the larger goal of rallying international attention around a humanitarian outrage.

The UN's admission came hours ahead of a critical report to the secretary general by a respected human rights lawyer and UN advisor, Philip Alston. He concluded that the UN's position was, in his words, "morally unconscionable, legally indefensible, and politically self-defeating."

Concannon said he believes his group's lawsuit was a factor in forcing the UN to take responsibility for its role. But it was only one factor of several.

"I think the bigger picture is that there's been a huge increase in pressure on the organization because of this issue," Concannon said. "Member states have been pushing harder. Haitian citizens have been demanding action. The Haitian government is a little bit more independent; they are pushing a little bit."


How Haiti came to be infected with cholera is not seriously disputed. In the wake of the devastating 2010 earthquake, UN peacekeepers from Nepal, which has been the scene of a cholera outbreak, dumped infected feces into the Meille River. It was the first known cholera outbreak ever in Haiti. The epidemic peaked several years ago, but cholera remains. An estimated 200 Haitians have died of cholera this year.

The UN's evasions have been numerous. It has claimed that the source of the outbreak was not firmly established, which was false. It has argued, successfully, that it cannot be sued in US courts, due to diplomatic immunity, a position the Obama administration has supported. Even now, what the UN will do in response is anyone's guess.

Experts put the cost at repairing Haiti's water supply at $2.2 billion. In addition, victims want an apology, and compensation.

"We have kids condemned to generational poverty, because their parents died," Concannon said. Alston's report estimates the UN's potential liability at nearly $40 billion. That's a far bigger check than most observers believe the UN would really write.

On the same day that the UN publicly acknowledged responsibility, IJDH's suit was dismissed by the US Court of Appeals on a 3-0 vote. The court did not consider how cholera came to Haiti; instead, it found that the UN cannot be sued regardless. Concannon's group has three months to file an appeal to the US Supreme Court. By then, it will know what the UN is willing to do for Haiti.


Concannon, ever wary, suspects the UN will do as little as it can get by with. However, denial is no longer an option. That, in itself, is a major victory.

"If the UN really is serious about responding justly, then we don't need [an appeal]," he said. "We want results on the ground: lives saved, and people compensated."

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at

Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.