A lone hand raised on the question of U.N. responsibility for cholera in Haiti

When it comes to the possibility that the United Nations might claim responsibility for causing the outbreak of cholera in Haiti, Costa Rican diplomat Christina Figueres stands alone. In the first-ever televised debate of the secretary-general candidates, the moderator asked whether they would apologize for the import of cholera to Haiti by Nepalese peacekeepers in fall 2009. Flanked by some of the early favorites to take the job, only Figueres raised her hand.

“I believe that was an unintended consequence of a very important goal of the United Nations,” Figueres said when she was asked to explain why she raised her hand. “But we have to be responsible even for unintended consequences. If I go to the 38th floor I will make sure that during my tenure that we completely eradicate malaria and cholera in Haiti … that is a moral responsibility the United Nations has, and it must be fulfilled.”

On the issue of compensation for victims, Figueres said that the U.N. would be unable to do that. But she conceded that it is the U.N.’s responsibility to eradicate cholera from Haiti and ensure that the mistakes that allowed the disease into the country never happen again. Her attitude differs from current Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who invoked U.N. immunity to shirk responsibility for the outbreak that killed more than 9,000 people.

Moderator James Bays of Al Jazeera, which produced and televised the historic debate, asked former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, a front-runner in the race, to explain why she did not raise her hand. Clark said she did not think it was prudent to comment on a case that is being challenged in the courts and then shifted to discuss the U.N.-led response to the outbreak, which she characterized as insufficient.

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“If there are issues of sanitation in U.N. camps, which there may well be, let us attend to that. Because U.N. peacekeepers shouldn’t be living in squalor either, if that is going to cause a problem to a surrounding neighborhood,” Clark said.

Figueres and Clark were joined on stage at the time by Danilo Turk, former president of Solvenia; Irina Bokova, current head of UNESCO; and Igo Luksic, former prime minister of Montenegro. All of whom did not raise their hands.

An earlier panel featured five more of the 12 total candidates seeking the position. Most of the outside attention is on the potential for the first-ever woman secretary-general. Bokova is well-positioned to take the post based on the presumed regional rotation for the job, but challenges from notable women have cast some uncertainty over the choice.

Accountability is one of the many issues that are being discussed in the more open process of selection. It is still a decision that is largely determined by the members of the Security Council, but the opening up of the race has allowed for questions like the one posed by Bays. Cholera will be a major issue for the next secretary-general, especially since the U.S. Court of Appeals in New York heard arguments regarding whether the U.N. lost its claim to immunity for not providing a justice mechanism for victims of the cholera outbreak.

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Advocates pushing on the issue of the U.N.’s responsibility on Haiti say that the issue is important because of the impact on victims, the need for the body to be accountable for actions taken by its peacekeepers, and the need to understand the causes of the outbreak in order to prevent it from happening again. The new book Deadly River: Cholera and Cover-Up in Post-Earthquake Haiti describes the ways in which the U.N. has bent over backward to avoid responsibility. Ethnographer Ralph R. Frerichs traces the evidence and the experiences by French infectious disease specialist Renaud Piarroux to show the extent to which the U.N. is denying the truth.

“You have to know the source of an outbreak and how it started because different theories have different conclusions on prevention,” said Frerichs in an interview with Humanosphere prior to the debate. “Its important with this obfuscation, that the new candidates be asked specific questions about whether the U.N. is responsible for cholera in Haiti.”

When that moment happened only Figueres was willing to raise her hand and be counted on to admit the mistake by the peacekeeping unit and apologize.

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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.