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The United States is actively discouraging countries from holding the UN accountable for bringing cholera to Haiti, says Brian Concannon, Executive Director of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore. The UN is back in the hot-seat. A leaked UN report is exposing how the World Body knew about unsanitary conditions at bases in Haiti a month after a cholera epidemic erupted in the country. It’s wildly acknowledged that the UN peacekeepers from Nepal brought cholera to Haiti. DNA tests prove that the cholera strain in Haiti was a perfect match to the strain active in South Asia. The UN has consistently denied being responsible for the outbreak, but now with this leaked report, it could provide more evidence for 1500 Haitian cholera victims and families who are suing the UN for negligently bringing cholera to Haiti months after a earthquake devastated the country. Now joining us is one of the attorneys for the victims, Brian Concannon. He’s the executive director of the institute of justice and democracy in Haiti. Thanks so much for joining us, Brian BRIAN CONCANNON: Well thanks so much for having me Jessica. It’s good to be with you. DESVARIEUX: So Brian, let’s start out by discussing some of the alarming findings in the report. A month after the cholera outbreak began, more than one in 10 UN camps were still disposing of sewage directly into local environments. So we were talking about dumping into rivers, do accounts corroborate some of your own findings? CONCANNON: It corroborates but it’s much worse than we thought. We knew that the UN base in May where the cholera broke out, that that was dumping their waste into the river, we didn’t know that it was system wide, that 10 % of all camps were doing this. It’s also important to know that 10% of the camps were dumping their toilet water. 70 % were dumping what they call “gray water,” which is a mixture of shower water, kitchen water, that can also contain infectious diseases. DESVARIEUX: So despite all this evidence we have more than 9,000 people who were killed. More than 800,0000 Haitians infected. The UN is basically saying they’re immune. They’re claiming immunity from any claims of compensation. How are they able to claim immunity and why do you think the UN has forfeited that claim? CONCANNON: Well first of all the 9,000 people killed is an extremely conservative estimate. That’s the official number. Everybody acknowledges that the real number’s much higher. A study that came out last month said it’s probably 4 to 10 times higher. So were really talking of, of an excess of 40,000 people killed. This is the single biggest cholera country epidemic in modern times by far. The UN no longer seriously denies that it caused the cholera epidemic, although it has not formally acknowledged that. The UN also does not form, does not seriously contest that it has an obligation to the victims. Even the UN’s human rights experts have been very publicly insisting that the UN has an obligation to respond better to the victims and to give them their day in court. What the UN is saying is that it–without denying that I caused the problem or that it is responsible, it’s saying that no one an make them take that responsibility. So in our case we filed a case in US courts on behalf of cholera victims, and the UN is saying that no US court or any another court for that matter can hear a case against the UN. And what they rely on- it’s a treaty, it’s called the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations and they point to article 2 of that treaty, which does say that the UN is immune from suits in national courts. And we understand that and that’s actually a good thing. It gives the UN protection from harassment by some national courts. But in exchange for that immunity which is an extraordinary grant of power- to say you are immune from courts pursuing them- in exchange for that the UN agreed to provide an alternate mechanism in the same treaty. It’s section 29 of the same treaty. The UN says that it will provide alternate mechanisms for people who are claiming injuries by UN operations. Now what the UN is saying before US courts is that the US courts should look at article 2 section 2 but should ignore section 29. That once you get to article 2 you stop reading and say the UN is immune and that you don’t take into account the fact that the UN has agreed to provide an alternate mechanism for justice hurt by their operations. DESVARIEUX: Is there president for the UN invoking immunity? CONCANNON: The UN evokes immunity all the time. It just hasn’t made this kind of an extensive grab for immunity. In the past, the UN has had immunity for things like peacekeeper operations. There was a famous case in the Yugoslav wars, where the UN pulled out of a safe haven and thousands of people were killed. And courts in Europe upheld the immunity saying the courts should not be second guessing battlefield decisions. In another case in US courts the- someone who was sexually harassed by her boss at the UN- she filed a complaint at the UN. The UN agreed to give her the alternative justice as it’s obligated to do and the victim on the harassment didn’t feel that the UN process was fair, so challenged it. And in that case the US courts did say “well were not going to second guess the UN’s justice proceedings, so we are going to uphold its immunity.” Bu the UN has never come before a court in the US or anywhere else as far as we know and say yes we refuse to comply with our side of the bargain, but we ask you to uphold our protection that we got in exchange for the bargain. DESVARIEUX: So Brian, I know that you and your organization are in the middle of challenging the UN’s reasoning, You recently presented an appeal before an appeals panel in New York. Can you just give us some background as to why the case was dismissed in lower court in the first place. And just a quick status on the update of the appeal? CONCANNON: Sure, the UN never appeared in the case but at the district court level, the US government, through the department of justice appeared and made the argument the the UN’s immunities absolute under section 2. And also told the Judge- look judge, you need to defer to the executive branch on foreign affairs and it’s our determination the the UN can’t be sued in this court. And the Judge agreed and the Judge did dismiss it, which was not surprising. We always felt this was an issue that need to go to an appeals court. And we got our day in court on March 2nd and we were very pleased with it. The judges asked the US government some very tough questions. They asked the US government what it had been doing to apply pressure on the UN to fulfill it’s obligations. The lawyer for the government was not able to say that it had done anything. The judges asked a lot of really hard questions about leaving victims of recklessness, who lost a lot, leaving them with no access to justice whatsoever and the judges were deeply concerned by that. So we’re not able to make a prediction on how that court’s going to decide, but we were certainly encouraged by the equations. And it’s clear that the judges were deeply troubled by this large assertion of immunity by the United Nations. DESVARIEUX: So the Department of Justice is essentially represented the UN in this case. Brian I wanted to ask you, could the United States be doing more to pressure the UN to take more accountability. CONCANNON: The judges asked the US attorney if it could and the US attorney said yes, there’s lots of things that can be done. And then the judges asked if they’d been done, and they hadn’t. So there’s many thing that the US could do. Obviously the US is the largest contributor to the UN–that gives it a awful lot of influence. And when the US does want the UN to do something, that usually happens. It’s clear in this case that the US is not only failing to take leadership, and I think there’s a great opportunity for leadership on this issue, but the US is actually taking the side that the UN should not respond fairly to the cholera victims. There’s countries that have been stepping up and have been pushing the UN- the UN’s own human rights experts are stepping up. But so far the United States government has not to our knowledge encouraged the UN to respond fairly to the cholera victims. DESVARIEUX: And you were saying that they’ve actually done the opposite, you’re hearing–. CONCANNON: We’ve heard lots of reports where the US government has downplayed the legal claims, the legal responsibilities of the UN, and has even discouraged other countries from pursuing it with the United Nations. DESVARIEUX: All right Brian Concannon, we’ll have to certainly have you back once that appeals decision comes out. Thank you so much for doing this. CONCANNON: Well thank you for covering this case. DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Brian Concannon, Jr., Esq., is the Executive Director of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH). He co-managed the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) in Haiti for eight years, from 1996-2004, and worked for the United Nations as a Human Rights Officer in 1995-1996. Mr. Concannon founded IJDH, and has been the Director since 2004. He helped prepare the prosecution of the Raboteau Massacre trial in 2000, one of the most significant human rights cases anywhere in the Western Hemisphere. He has represented Haitian political prisoners before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and represented the plaintiff in Yvon Neptune v. Haiti, the first Haiti case ever tried before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Mr. Concannon has received fellowships from Harvard Law School and Brandeis University and has trained international judges, U.S. asylum officers and law students across the U.S. He is a member of the Editorial Board of Health and Human Rights, An International Journal. He speaks and writes frequently about human rights in Haiti. He holds an undergraduate degree from Middlebury College and JD from Georgetown Law. He speaks English, Haitian Creole and French.