Haiti: UN admits role in cholera epidemic

In an e-mail sent out the week of Aug. 15, Farhan Haq, deputy spokesperson for United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon, made the organization’s first-ever acknowledgment of any responsibility for a cholera epidemic that has wracked Haiti since October 2010. “[T]he UN has become convinced that it needs to do much more regarding its own involvement in the initial outbreak and the suffering of those affected by cholera,” Haq wrote. Activists, journalists and epidemiologists have contended for nearly six years that the epidemic originated near Mirebalais, in Center department, at a base staffed by Nepalese soldiers from the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). Hundreds of thousands of Haitians have been sickened by the disease, which had never been reported in the country before 2010, and at least 10,000 people have died. Cholera victims have brought several lawsuits against the UN; the organization has repeatedly denied any legal liability.

Haq’s e-mail was in response to a confidential Aug. 8 report by UN special rapporteur Philip Alston; the report was obtained by the New York Times and reported on by Jonathan M. Katz. Alston went much further than Haq in assigning blame, stating that the epidemic “would not have broken out but for the actions of the United Nations.” The UN’s failure to pay reparations, Alston wrote, “upholds a double standard according to which the UN insists that member states respect human rights, while rejecting any such responsibility for itself.” The UN’s position “provides highly combustible fuel for those who claim that UN peacekeeping operations trample on the rights of those being protected.” (NYT, Aug. 17)

Claims that MINUSTAH was responsible for the outbreak first appeared in English-language media with October 2010 reports by Katz, who was then an Associated Press correspondent in Haiti. US media tended to dismiss the claims as “rumors,” and suggested, without evidence, that demonstrations by Haitians protesting the UN’s role were hampering efforts to fight the epidemic. Some US-based scientists presented implausible scenarios intended let MINUSTAH off the hook for the outbreak. There were speculations that the cholera bacterium, which was identified as South Asian in origin, was brought to Haiti in imported food or water, or in ballast discharged from ocean-going ships—without any evidence that Haiti ever imported food or water from South Asia, or that bacteria could somehow swim more than 90 kilometers up the Artibonite River from the Caribbean to Mirebalais.

The UN’s admission comes six years late and with qualifications, but Haitian activists consider it an important step forward. The prominent human rights attorney Mario Joseph hailed the UN’s new position as “a great victory for the thousands of Haitians who have marched for justice, have written the UN, and have even taken it to court.” (AlterPresse, Haiti, Aug. 18)

Map: Perry-Castañeda Map Library