Wednesday 6 March 2013

Shitting on Haiti

Haiti is a young nation, which is to say that it is a nation of the young. Growing old here without mishap is something of an achievement. If history in the widest sense is no more than a form of collective memory, then there are not many still alive who remember the days of Baby Doc Duvalier, the former dictator. The son of the infamous Papa Doc, Baby Doc ruled the country from his father’s death in 1971 until he was ousted in 1986 by a military coup.
After many years in exile he returned home in 2011. Some remembered. Some even celebrated his return, seeing his rule in a positive light, a measure of just how miserable things were in the country after the previous year’s devastating earthquake. Others were less enthused. Baby Doc’s apology to those who “rightly feel were the victims” did little to dispel the blacker memories. A legal action was mounted on behalf of a few dozen people, the survivors of the past, calling him to account for the tortures, disappearances and murders that took place under his regime.
Last year a court ruled that too much time had elapsed since the alleged crimes were committed. For most people this is a past that is simply too far away. Although the case is being appealed, very little is happening in the face of Baby Doc’s obduracy (he has boycotted all hearings) and the weakness of the Haitian justice system.
The United Nations (UN) is outraged. Towards the end of last month the organisation issued a statement, urging the judicial authorities in the country to act on their responsibilities. “Such systematic violations of rights must not remain unaddressed”, lectured Navi Pillay, the UN Commissioner for Human Rights. So far as she is concerned there can be no statute of limitations when it comes to the kind of grave abuses that were such a feature of the Duvalier regime.
I have no information on the point but I would be surprised if that many Haitians, beyond the alleged victims, care overmuch about past injustices. As I say, this is a young country. The past is far less important than the present; the crimes of Baby Doc far less relevant than the crimes of...the UN. Yes, indeed, if misery was not misery enough in this country the UN introduced even more; it reintroduced cholera, a disease that had been absent from Haiti for over a hundred years.
After the 2010 quake UN teams arrived bringing all sorts of aid. Unfortunately for Haiti they also brought a lot of shit. Human beings are human beings and waste is waste; there is really not an awful lot one can do about that. But the one thing that should not be done is the dumping of a lot of untreated faecal matter into local rivers, sources of bathing and drinking water. Jonathan Katz describes what he saw, and smelt, in The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Behind a Disaster, his recently published book;

Young men from the village were standing in front of the gate wearing backpacks and ball caps. Evens greeted them, approaching with open arms. "We heard someone dumped kaka in the river. Know anything about that?"

Heads nodded.

"Can you show us where?"

At once they turned and walked toward the base. We followed. Nepalese soldiers in green-and-brown camouflage and sky-blue helmets watched us from a guard tower. Just before the gate, the young men turned right and walked to the back of the base, where only a steep narrow slope of mud and rock separated the compound from the river. As we neared, they covered their noses and mouths. A second later, I realised why. The stench of rotting human filth was debilitating. We held our breath and crossed a concrete embankment along the ridge.

The result was a mass outbreak of cholera, a dreadful water-borne disease, which so far has killed over 8000 people and infected a further 640,000. The disease is now endemic, predicted to kill as many as 1000 people every year. In the end the fatalities are likely to exceed those of the 2010 quake many times over.
Yes, it is a dreadful condition. The body becomes like a burst dam, water evacuated out copiously from both ends of the alimentary system, in uncontrollable vomiting and diarrhoea. This extreme evacuation is accompanied by high fever and terrible intestinal pain, as if one had eaten a stick of thorns, so some have described. Death, when it comes, is by dehydration. There is no liquid left.
Now just imagine if a private company, by a singular act of negligence, was responsible for such devastation. Inevitably it would face all sorts of penalties - in compensation payments, in legal costs and in damage limitation. Just remember the case of BP and the Gulf oil disaster. But BP is a legal entity; it’s a public corporation and it can be sued by the public. The UN is above all that. The UN is divine in the sense that its acts are like the acts of God, beyond all human retribution.
The very same day that Navi Pillay chose fit to lecture Haitians on human rights, the office of Bi Ki-moon, the Secretary General, issued a statement dismissing the claims for compensation involving 5000 people. The action was, to use the jargon, “not receivable” because of the UN’s privileges and immunities. In other words, the UN is above all national law; there is simply no basis for legal action against this organisation. Writing to the lawyers acting for the claimants, the UN’s legal office said “...consideration of these claims would necessarily involve a review of political and policy matters.”
So, yes; dumping faeces in clean rivers would seem to be a matter of UN policy. Dealing with the consequences is not. The callousness, the arrogance and the high-handedness here is quite simply stunning. Compared with the irresponsible actions of a body that behaves a little like an international pirate the crimes of Baby Doc seem almost irrelevant. Clearly, when it comes to human rights, all cases are equal, but some cases are more equal than others.


  1. There's a compact made in Hell: corruption and incompetence cubed.

  2. As you have pointed out many times the world is in the grip of the mad and the bad. This is not a new phenomena it has always been such. The difference now however is scale. Previously it was localised and populations were less demanding on resources now it is global and with much higher levels of demand. Also we humans have made great strides in science and technology but that is not matched by any improvement in wisdom. We have now a vast array of institutions so the proliferation of the mad and bad has increased tremendously and with it corruption and ineptitude. Where this is leading us is anyone's guess. It maybe that we shall muddle painfully through as always and very slowly improvements will be made. In the past when the level of the problem reaches a certain point corrections have been made that are very painful indeed and usually involve much suffering. Hopefully it will be different this time but I doubt it.

    1. There was a time when it was possible to believe in such things as progress and human ingenuity. Perhaps some people still do. Not I.