Oxfam, Haiti and Miles’s Law

Hugh Pennington

Oxfam is in serious difficulties. It is reasonable to speculate that the hard time it is being given by the international development secretary, Penny Mordaunt, is due to the workings of Miles’s law - 'Where you stand depends on where you sit' – in that it reflects forces in the British government and the Tory party hostile to the foreign aid programme.

I sit as a microbiologist, and see the harmful events in Haiti following the arrival of foreigners after the 2010 Port-au-Prince earthquake very differently, both from a quantitative and from a political point of view. Nepalese soldiers arrived at a United Nations Stabilisation Mission camp in October. They brought cholera with them. It spread rapidly down the Artibonite River. The first indication of its arrival was the deaths of three children at school from acute watery diarrhoea. They had drunk river water. At the time, only 63 per cent of Haitians had access to water from a pipe or a well. The epidemic took off.

Conservative estimates are that by June 2014 there had been 703,510 cases and 8552 deaths. A vigorous public information campaign was started. One of its key messages, 'Jete popou ak vomisman nan latrin' (throw faeces and vomit into a latrine), faced implementation difficulties because only 17 per cent of the population had access to a water or earth closet.

Genome sequencing of Nepalese cholera bacteria (an outbreak was in progress there just before the peacekeepers left) and Haitian ones showed beyond doubt that the peacekeepers were the source. But the UN denied responsibility. It took refuge behind the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations, which gives it immunity from legal action. Culpability, although still not waiving legal immunity, was not admitted until December 2016 by Ban Ki-moon, coupled with a carefully worded formal apology, as one of his final doings as UN secretary–general. Another example of Miles’s law in action; the institutional interests of the UN came first.