Collective Responsibility: UN and the Cholera Outbreak in Haiti

In establishing that a group has collective responsibility for their actions, a measure of control is necessary.  Without it, the group or mob could not be considered a group or mob at all.  If there was no control, there could not be any intent to create a group, or to obtain a goal, or to take action.  Without control, a group would cease to function.  The mass of individuals would disperse — they were tired of sitting around.   To hold a collective responsible for the harm it has caused, there must be what Shockley calls ”coordinating control.”[1]  With the presence of coordinating control, Shockley rightly argues that the collective is morally responsible for the harms done by it.  This applies even if the only action of the collective was to create an environment or climate that allowed individual members to cause the harm.  Professor  Smiley elaborates and quotes Shockley — ”In cases where collectives are morally responsible for harm, the collective serves as an enabling condition of individual blameworthy agents to perform harmful acts.’” This argument is certainly applicable to assign blameworthiness to the UN for causing the cholera outbreak in Haiti.  Assignment of blame could go to the Nepalese forces, but ultimately, the UN is the reason why they were there.  As Smiley notes —

we have to insist only that the collective, by virtue of its very nature as the particular kind of collective that it is, have led individual members to produce harm that they could not have produced themselves. For, it is the moral blameworthiness of the collective itself, rather than that of its members, that constitutes collective moral responsibility.


Placing blame on the bodies of Nepalese, who are ”brown and backwards”, because they lack the enlightened processes of sanitation, lacks the moral culpability of the broader occupation by the UN.

Collective moral responsibility used in both social science and legal mobilization can be a powerful tool for human rights workers in Haiti and critics of UN occupation/humanitarian forces.  The social science’s can theorize and provide the factual foundations for significant arguments that can shame, enlighten, and catalyze people’s consciousness concerning the myriad issues surrounding UN forces.  Lawyers bringing cases to the ICC can then use this foundation for their work.  Over 1,000 Haitians have died since the outbreak.  Cholera has never been on the island before.  The UN forces are responsible for this outbreak.  They should be held morally responsible.  They should be criminally responsible for the deaths caused by their presence in Haiti.  Despite the rhetoric that this is a humanitarian assistance project, Haiti has been altered forever.  Cholera should not be swept under the rug of good intentions and unfortunate accidents. Assignment of moral responsibility of the harm must be acknowledged.  There must be justice for the lives lost.

[1] Marion Smiley, Collective Responsibility, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2010)