The U.N. may finally admit it caused the Haitian cholera outbreak

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The United Nations is finally starting to own up to its complicity in the spread of cholera in Haiti. The deputy spokesman for Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon admitted for the first time that the U.N. was involved in the start of the outbreak, in an email to New York Times reporter Jonathan Katz. As a result, the U.N. says it will unveil new steps to help rid cholera from Haiti within the next few months.

The statement from spokesman Farhan Haq does not go as far as admitting the U.N. was at fault. Yet, the concession that the U.N. “needs to do much more regarding its own involvement in the initial outbreak and the suffering of those affected by cholera” is a notable departure from the usual tactic of denial and re-direction when asked about the issue. The pending announcement may finally be the point when the body takes full responsibility for bringing cholera to Haiti.

“This is a major victory for the thousands of Haitians who have been marching for justice, writing to the U.N. to demand remedies and have brought the U.N. to court,” Beatrice Lindstrom, staff attorney for the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, the organization that brought a lawsuit against the U.N. over the cholera outbreak, told Humanosphere. “But the real test will be in how the U.N. follows through on its words with action. It has to listen to victims in this process and issue a public apology, provide compensation for families who have suffered so much and robust investment in water and sanitation infrastructure to eliminate cholera.”

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Internal and external pressure on Ban’s office over the U.N.’s role in the outbreak has built over the past year. The Guardian reported in April that a report commissioned shortly after the outbreak started described how sewage from several U.N. peacekeeping bases was being dumped in the open and, at times, near water sources. The mission had five self-contained waste-water treatment centers but didn’t use them: There wasn’t enough money to complete three, and the other two needed repairs. Instead, the U.N. hired contractors to dispose of waste from the camps, including sewage and water from showers and kitchens.

Leading scientists say that Nepalese peacekeepers brought cholera to Haiti, and it was then spread down the Meille River when that waste came into contact with the river. For more than five years, the Office of the Secretary-General has dodged blame and gone so far as to invoke immunity against lawsuits seeking to hold the U.N. responsible.

The U.N. stepped up to lead an effort to eliminate cholera from Haiti – a country that has never seen cholera before this outbreak. Yet, while making public efforts to help Haiti, the peacekeeping mission did not improve its waste management practices. A recently leaked audit assessed that the mission was doing an ‘unsatisfactory’ job. Dated June 30, 2015, the audit found that wastewater was being discharged into public canals in seven of the 31 sites visited.

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“Discharging wastewater that did not meet established parameters exposed the local population to an increased health risk, and [United Nations Stabilization Mission In Haiti] to environmental and reputational risks,” it stated. “Failure to effectively maintain water treatment plants contributed to all of these risks.”

But it was a confidential report written by U.N. special rapporteur and New York University law professor Philip Alston that finally led to a changed public response from Ban’s office.

Katz, the New York Times reporter, obtained a copy of the report that pointedly criticizes the U.N.’s handling of its role in the outbreak and its on-the-ground response. Alston makes the case that the international body went against its own mandate to protect and uphold human rights in order to skirt responsibility.

“It provides highly combustible fuel for those who claim that U.N. peacekeeping operations trample on the rights of those being protected, and it undermines both the U.N.’s overall credibility and the integrity of the Office of the Secretary-General,” Alston wrote in the report.

There is a legal challenge against the U.N. for denying a justice mechanism for victims of the outbreak. It seeks restitution in the billions of dollars for victims, admission of guilt from the U.N. and assumption of full leadership by the U.N. in eliminating cholera in Haiti. That will mean finally backing the $2 billion plan the U.N. launched to defeat cholera but has yet to fully fund.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded 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.