UN Secretary General ramps up Haiti cholera response rhetoric

In what has become an all too familiar dance, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon visited Haiti to draw attention to the ongoing cholera outbreak. He again threw his verbal support behind the $2.2 billion plan to eliminate cholera from the island of Hispaniola, shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic, in 10 years. He stressed the need for global support to address the challenges of clean water and sanitation in Haiti in order to put to a halt an epidemic that has infected more than 700,000 people and killed 8,500 since October 2010.

“I know that the epidemic has caused much anger and fear. I know that the disease continues to affect an unacceptable number of people,” said Ban while speaking at a church service in the village of Los Palmas, last week. “Whatever I say today will not lessen the despair you have felt over the loss of your loved ones.”

What he did not say was that the outbreak is the UN’s fault. He did not say that it was UN peacekeepers from Nepal who accidentally brought cholera into Haiti and spread it because the UN mission was not properly disposing of its fecal waste. He did not apologize on behalf of the UN for the error that cost thousands of lives.

Ban made what he called a “necessary pilgrimage” to Haiti and got attention from various media sources about the trip. The tenor of such report has changed over time due to the fact that this story has already been told. For example, much was made of remarks by Ban in late 2012 about the $2.2 billion plan for Haiti. As Jonathan Katz and I reported for Foreign Policy, there was not really much news in what was announced. The plan was already established nearly a year before that, by the UN. Even the money supposedly raised at the time was just countries following through on promises more than two years prior.

At the time, only $118 million of the $2.2 billion needed was available. More than 18 months later, the UN is short of the $400 million that is needed to kick start the end of cholera on the island. Yet again, Ban was called upon to take leadership and admit the responsibility of the UN for the outbreak. An editorial by the Miami Herald pushed the issue yet again, when Ban made the visit to Haiti. The editors say that the UN should not only accept guilt, but compensate the victims of the outbreak.

“[T]his should be only the beginning of the U.N.’s effort to make things right with the people of Haiti. “Moral responsibility” requires that the United Nations take concrete steps to back up the secretary general’s admission. Otherwise, it amounts to nothing more than hollow words,” write the editors.

Ban was commended for admitting that the UN has a “moral responsibility” to lead the way. His visit last week was proof positive that he was taking need for UN leadership more seriously. What remains to be done is solving the problem of the lack of access to improved sanitation for nearly three out of every four Haitians. As the US and other countries have shown, universal access to clean water and sanitation all but puts an end to water-borne diseases like cholera.

” I have seen again and again the courage of the Haitian people. Your determination in the face of hardship continues to inspire people across the world. The United Nations will continue to stand with you in your efforts to build a brighter future for you and your children,” said Ban to the church-goers.

Can the Ban and the UN live up to those words?

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a Maine-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom found and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.

  • Dr. Tim Howard

    There are no human rights without accountability for causing human suffering and death. The United Nations must hold itself accountable so it can be a moral force for human rights on the planet.