Senators press U.S. to take stance on U.N. fault for cholera in Haiti

Survivors in Port Salut, Haiti. (Credit: Vincent DeGennaro, Innovating Health International)

A group of U.S. senators wants to know whether the government is willing to publicly blame the U.N. for bringing cholera to Haiti. It comes in the wake of Hurricane Matthew, which devastated large portions of the country and caused a spike in cholera cases.

letter to U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power requests a response in writing explaining whether there is support for increased funding to eliminate cholera and whether the U.N. is immune from the lawsuit brought forward by the victims of the outbreak.

“The recent devastation of Hurricane Matthew has only amplified Haiti’s humanitarian crisis and provided a situation that is likely to intensify the impacts of cholera in the country. It is imperative, now more than ever, to develop a focused effort on eradicating disease transmission and provide an expeditious path to material and financial assistance for cholera victims and their families,” wrote Sens. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Robert Menendez, D-N.J.

The U.S. supported the U.N. when it claimed immunity from legal action over the spread of cholera in Haiti by Nepalese peacekeepers. Investigative and scientific reports overwhelmingly prove that the strain of cholera, a disease that may have never existed in Haiti prior to the outbreak, was spread because of improper human waste disposal by the peacekeeping mission.

Last month, the four senators wrote a letter to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon demanding that the U.N. “fulfill its obligation to help the people of Haiti.” They commended Ban for finally admitting in August that the U.N. played a role in the start of the outbreak. He did not go as far as accepting full blame, nor did he say that the victims would receive the compensation they demand. But the senators welcomed the positive development.

“We hope you will publicly elaborate on the U.N.’s plan to remedy Haiti’s cholera crisis,” they wrote in September. “Haitians have waited far too long for the U.N. to take responsibility for the crisis and to compensate those affected.”

The small group of bipartisan legislators has used varying methods to keep pressure on the U.N. over the past few years.

Hurricane Matthew brought Haiti back into the public conversation because of the magnitude of its destruction. The World Health Organization announced that it would send 1 million cholera vaccine doses to limit the spread of the waterborne disease. It is a short-term fix for a problem that requires the long-term solution of ensuring access to safe water for every Haitian.

“I have grave concerns that the cholera epidemic that has ravaged Haiti will only be made catastrophic in the wake of Hurricane Matthew,” said Markey following a visit to Haiti this week, in a statement. “We must mobilize to stop the spread of cholera and address any new public health threats that emerge. This includes long-term development of infrastructure to provide safe drinking water, safely manage and dispose of wastewater through effective public sanitation systems and ensure adequate electrical energy to make such systems feasible. We must help Haiti rebuild and get communities back on their feet as quickly as possible.”

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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.