Ban Ki-moon apologizes to Haiti for cholera outbreak, doesn’t admit fault

Staff with Doctors Without Borders respond to the Haitian cholera outbreak, in December 2010. (Credit: Doctors Without Borders)

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon took another step in recognizing the failures of the U.N. during the cholera outbreak in Haiti. He apologized in remarks delivered in Creole, English and French for not doing enough, but did mention the U.N.’s role in causing the outbreak.

“The United Nations deeply regrets the loss of life and suffering caused by the cholera outbreak in Haiti,” Ban said. “On behalf of the United Nations, I want to say very clearly: We apologize to the Haitian people. We simply did not do enough with regard to the cholera outbreak and its spread in Haiti.”

“We are profoundly sorry for our role.”

Ban went on to say that the outbreak is a “blemish on the reputation of U.N. peacekeeping.” It is a subtle acknowledgment that cholera was brought to Haiti by a Nepalese peacekeeping unit. But the remarks did not go as far as accepting full blame.

Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson told reporters before the speech that Ban was not apologizing for causing the outbreak. He cited a disputed U.N. panel report claiming a number of factors contributed to the outbreak.

“We now recognize that we had a role in this but to go to the extent of taking full responsibility for all is a step that would not be possible for us to take,” said Eliasson.

Ban’s remarks to the General Assembly on Thursday were dedicated to describing how the U.N. is going to respond to the outbreak. He requested $400 million over the next two years to reduce cholera cases and support victims. The U.N. will support continued vaccination campaigns and make investments in expanding access to safe drinking water and sanitation. An estimated $2 billion is needed to eradicate cholera, a sum Ban admits the U.N. is struggling to meet.

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“I understand the reaction of being overwhelmed by what seems to be a never-ending list of pressing humanitarian needs around the world,” he said.

“In Haiti’s case, the hurricane has brought added suffering and understandably diverted resources. Yet, I want to stress that on the scale of global humanitarian and development needs, limited sums are required to eliminate cholera in Haiti. This mission is realistic and doable.”

Cholera spread in Haiti in October 2010, less than a year after a major earthquake devastated the country. The outbreak killed more than 10,000 people in the past six years, many in the first few months. Ban admitted the U.N. was slow to respond and still has not done enough to eliminate cholera on the island.

A lawsuit against the U.N. on behalf of the victims is seeking compensation, an apology and for the U.N. to take responsibility for eradication. Ban and other U.N. officials say the body is immune from such legal action – a claim upheld in August by a federal court in Manhattan.

The issue is not a matter of semantics. Assigning responsibility carries the weight of fixing the problem. Activists say that the U.N. should pay for the majority of the $2 billion response, in addition to compensation, because of its role in causing the outbreak.

Reporters from the Associated press and Al Jazeera found that a peacekeeping unit was dumping human waste into the upper Artibonite River, where the path of the outbreak was traced at the time.

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A panel of experts, appointed by the U.N. investigated the causes of the outbreak, determined that strain of cholera in the river came from Nepal. The unit dumping the waste in the river was from Nepal where there was a recent cholera outbreak. Despite the evidence, the panel concluded that a series of factors contributed to the outbreak.

Studies published in the years that followed showed more evidence that cholera came from Nepal. That led the panel of experts in 2013, two years after issuing their report, to publicly state that the peacekeeping was “most likely source of introduction of cholera into Haiti.”

The U.N. conceded in August of this year that it had a role in the outbreak. Victims lauded that concession and Thursday’s apology.

“This was a victory for us today. It wasn’t easy. We sent thousands of letters and were in the street to get this victory for them to say today that they were responsible. They said that and we thank them,” Desir Jean-Clair who lost his mother to the outbreak, told the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti.

An apology alone is not enough. Pressure is still on the U.N. to follow through on its pledges to rid Haiti of cholera and support the victims of the outbreak.

“It can’t end there. Because today there is still cholera in all the country. I got cholera,” said Jean-Clair. “This battle hasn’t finished. And they can’t just talk about this doing this in 2017; this is urgent.”

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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.