Co-authored with Sienna Merope-Synge
Last month, the UN General Assembly took an important step forward in promoting access to adequate sanitation, unanimously adopting Resolution 70/169 recognizing the right to sanitation as a distinct human right and emphasizing the need for non-state actors as well as States to do more to realize it.
As noted by the General Assembly, the right to sanitation is too often neglected. Over 2.5 billion people lack access to adequate sanitation, undermining their privacy and dignity and leading to the contamination of water and spread of disease. Over 950,000 people practice 'open defecation', something the UN General Assembly described as 'one of the clearest manifestation of poverty and extreme poverty'. Halving the number of people without access to basic sanitation was one of the Millennium Development Goals, but the international community failed abysmally, missing the goal by almost 700 million people. Further, the UN believes that "official figures...underestimate the numbers of those without access to safe and affordable drinking water and safely managed and affordable sanitation". The devastating impact of failure to protect the right to sanitation is evident in Haiti, where a cholera epidemic introduced by UN peacekeepers in 2010 through the reckless discharge of human waste into Haiti's main river system continues to devastate the country. Cholera poisoned rivers, wells and other water sources and, in the absence of adequate water and sanitation infrastructure, spread quickly and ruthlessly through the population. Five years on, more than 9000 Haitians have died and 745,000 - or 8 percent of the population - have been infected. Victims tell harrowing stories of watching parents, siblings and children die in front of them within a few hours of contracting cholera, of experiencing diarrhea and vomiting so extreme they lost consciousness, and of their fears of contracting cholera again.
These fears are well founded. In a country where less than 30 percent of the population have access to basic sewerage infrastructure and less than 70 percent regularly access an "improved water source" protected from outside contamination, cholera has become endemic. As cholera survivor Miradieu Devilus puts it, "still, five years later, we don't have clean water to drink in our community. The river is all we have". More than 22,500 people were infected in 2015. Most recently cholera infection rates have surged in deportee camps along the border with the Dominican Republic, where water and sanitation infrastructure is particularly poor.
The General Assembly's decision makes clear that while States have the primary responsibility to ensure full realization of the right to sanitation, non-state actors must also "comply with their responsibility to respect...the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation, including by...engaging with States to detect and remedy abuses of the human rights".
In Haiti, the UN is falling far short of this obligation. Despite numerous scientific studies that have established that Nepalese UN peacekeepers introduced cholera to Haiti, the institution has refused to take responsibility for its role in the epidemic. After cholera broke out, the UN published misleading statements about the disease's source and failed to conduct prompt investigations. It has since invoked absolute immunity to avoid granting reparations to those killed or sickened, and has failed to invest adequate resources in water and sanitation to eradicate cholera. A UN-Haiti cholera elimination plan focused on improving water and sanitation infrastructure was announced in 2012, but has languished for years with only 13% funding, while cholera rates once again rise.
The General Assembly's clear recognition of the right to sanitation is an important global step forward. As noted by the Special Rapporteur on the human right to water and sanitation, Léo Heller, it will "help focus international attention on sanitation issues". For that international attention to be meaningful however, it must include ensuring that the UN lives up to its own human rights obligations in Haiti - by committing the funds necessary to fund the UN-Haiti cholera elimination plan, and by engaging justly with the hundreds of thousands of Haitian victims who have suffered and continue to suffer as a result of the epidemic.
Sienna Merope-Synge, a human rights lawyer and Legal Fellow with the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, a U.S.-based organization that fights for the rights of Haiti's poor and currently represents victims of cholera in Haiti in their claims for reparations from the UN. She is a graduate of the University of Melbourne and of NYU School of Law, and lives between Boston and Port-au-Prince.