Haiti: UN admits—and denies—role in cholera deaths

On May 3 a panel of four experts presented United Nations (UN) secretary general Ban Ki-moon with their report on the origin of the cholera epidemic that broke out in Haiti last October. As of April 21 the disease had caused 4,575 deaths, according to the Ministry of Public Health and Population (MSPP). Almost 300,000 people have contracted cholera, and the number is expected to rise as the rainy season starts.

The report, made public on May 4, agreed with most of the conclusions of Haitian and foreign observers who blame the outbreak on bad sanitation practices at a base operated by the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), a 13,000-member military and police force that has occupied the country since June 2004.

The panel, which General Secretary Ban appointed in January, found that the cholera bacteria “did not originate from the native environs of Haiti,” where the disease was unknown for nearly a century. “Preliminary genetic analysis…indicate[s] that the strains isolated during the cholera outbreak in Haiti and those circulating in South Asia, including Nepal, at the same time in 2009-2010 are similar,” according to the report. The disease was first reported on Oct. 17 in Mirebalais in the Central Plateau, the panel found, and the “likely route of spread” to the rest of the country was from the Meye (or Meillé) River into the Artibonite, Haiti’s largest river. MINUSTAH maintains a base on the Meye near Mirebalais. “The sanitation conditions at the Mirebalais MINUSTAH camp were not sufficient to prevent fecal contamination” of the river system, the report noted. The troops stationed there in October had just arrived from Nepal.

The report didn’t suggest any possible source for the disease other than the MINUSTAH base. However, the panel’s only stated conclusion was “that the Haiti cholera outbreak was caused by the confluence of circumstances…and was not the fault of, or deliberate action of, a group or individual.”

At a May 5 French-language press briefing in Port-au-Prince, MINUSTAH spokesperson Sylvie van den Wildenberg repeated that the report blamed no one for the outbreak. “What’s important, today, is the response to the epidemic,” she told the reporters. “The priority of the UN in Haiti and of MINUSTAH is and will remain the response.” She “invited” the Haitian reporters to read the 32-page report, noting that “[f]or the moment, unfortunately, the text is only available in an English version.”

When a reporter from Radio Solidarité and Agence Haïtienne de Presse (AHP) asked “how we can hope the United Nations will accept its responsibilities,” Van den Wildenberg answered that she was against “pointing a finger at some blue helmet [UN soldier] who might be responsible for a cholera epidemic and 5,000 deaths in Haiti. This makes no sense, it’s reductionist, and it’s not fair.” (UN press release, May 4; AHP, May 5; National Public Radio blog, May 6; MINUSTAH press briefing, May 6)

The UN may be concerned about threats of legal action. Last January the feminist organization Haitian Women’s Solidarity (SOFA) said the Haitian government should file a complaint with the International Criminal Court (ICC) charging MINUSTAH with a crime against humanity and should demand compensation for the cholera victims and the farmers and vendors who have suffered economically because of the epidemic.

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, May 8.

See our last post on Haiti.