The United Nations has, at long last, accepted some responsibility that it played a part in a cholera epidemic that broke out in Haiti in 2010 and has since killed at least 9,200 people and infected nearly a million people.
This is the first time that the UN has acknowledged that it bears a duty towards the victims. It is a significant step forward in the quest for accountability and justice.
Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the world. It is frequently devastated by disasters — both natural and man-made. Yet cholera was not one of its problems before 2010. Then a group of UN peacekeepers was sent to help after an earthquake.
The UN did not screen its peacekeepers for cholera, nor did it build adequate toilet facilities in its peacekeeping camps. As a result, wastewater carrying cholera flowed directly into a tributary that feeds Haiti’s main river. Given that vast numbers of the population rely on the Artibonite river for washing, cooking, cleaning and drinking, cholera quickly spread around many parts of the country. The disease is now endemic within the country. People continue to die at an alarming rate by this preventable and treatable disease.
The UN has also refused to provide a mechanism through which victims can seek remedies. Peacekeeping missions are legally bound to set up claims boards for victims of civil wrongs, but this has not occurred in Haiti. A class action suit has been brought to New York district and appellate courts, but the UN has refused to appear before those courts and has hidden behind the shield of immunity from the jurisdiction of national courts. Advocacy groups have lobbied the UN and member states to provide political resolution, but none has been forthcoming.
Now, with Ban Ki-Moon’s tenure nearly finished, and with the Haiti situation remaining a stain on the UN’s reputation, it seems as though the five-year impasse may be coming to an end.
The New York Times has reported that a spokesperson for the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-Moon, whose tenure is nearly finished, wrote in a leaked email: “Over the past year, the 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.” He added that a “new response” would be made public in the coming months after it had been “agreed with the Haitian authorities.”
There have been many efforts to encourage resolution, including from UN independent experts on human rights, former UN officials and from some member states. Many of the candidates to become the next UN secretary-general have pledged to address the issue if appointed to that job.
There have been public calls for Ban Ki-Moon to move away from his position. There needs to be a concerted effort to ensure that any resolution package, should one be agreed, meets the needs of the cholera victims — given the political instability in Haiti.
Experts, academics, ambassadors to the UN and former UN officials have long discussed what a political resolution to this situation might look like. We believe there are three crucial aspects to any resolution package. There must be financial compensation, efforts to prevent the spread of the disease and a public apology.
In situations of mass harm, compensation is usually awarded through a lump sum payment or trust fund and a similar model could be used to compensate cholera victims in this case. Haiti does not have national laws and standards on compensation, but at the very least, financial compensation must be made available for the dependants of those who died from cholera and some form of remedies made available for those infected with the disease.
A strong cholera elimination plan is already in place in Haiti, focusing on water and sanitation, health, and preventing further infections. But it is woefully underfunded, which means that water treatment plants that have been built do not have sufficient electricity to run. Any resolution package must include support for this kind of work.
Finally, the cholera epidemic has significantly undermined the relationship between the UN and locals. An apology would be a starting point to rebuild the UN’s credibility in Haiti. Apologies after Rwanda, Srebrenica, and Sri Lanka played a significant role in the healing process for the people affected by UN mistakes.
The Haiti cholera epidemic remains a blight on the reputation of the UN and its peacekeeping missions. That will only change with a resolution package. Whatever form that package takes, it must be decided transparently. It must be victim-centred and ensure that justice is done and is seen to be done. The leaked UN email demonstrates that there is some momentum brewing. It is crucial that is capitalised upon in a transparent, fair and just manner.
Rosa Freedman has received funding from AHRC, British Academiy, ESRC, Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights, and Society of Legal Scholars.
Nicolas Lemay-Hébert receives funding from Marie Curie, ESRC, AHRC and the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights, and Society of Legal Scholars.