Haiti's cholera epidemic
The world rallied to confront Haiti’s cholera when it started in 2010, but the mission was muddled by the United Nations’ apparent role in setting off the epidemic and its unwillingness to acknowledge it. Photo: Damon Winter/The New York Times
INTERNATIONAL affairs can be complicated, but sometimes a case comes along that is so simple it is almost absurd. In 2010, the United Nations made a horrendous mistake that, so far, has claimed more than 8000 lives. Its officials tried to cover it up. When the evidence came out anyway, lawyers for victims' families petitioned the UN to end the crisis, pay damages and apologise. For a year and a half, the world's leading humanitarian organisation said nothing. Then, last week, it threw out the case, saying, ''The claims are not receivable.''
The place was Haiti. The mistake: a killer combination of cholera and gross negligence. The UN's peacekeeping mission had been in the country since 2004, when it was authorised to protect an interim government installed after a coup. Six years later the peacekeepers were still there. While rotating troops into Haiti following the disastrous 2010 earthquake, the UN neglected to adequately screen a contingent of soldiers coming from Nepal, where there was an active cholera outbreak.
From the outbreak's first days, the staff of an organisation dedicated to establishing respect for the rule of law chose to lie.
On arrival, the soldiers were sent to a rural UN base outside the quake zone, long known for leaking sewage into a major river system that millions of Haitians used to drink, bathe, wash and farm. Within days of their arrival, people downstream began to die. The epidemic then exploded. More than 647,000 people fell ill and in its first year the epidemic killed more than twice the number of people who died in the September 11 terrorist attacks.
The imported strain, which could turn a healthy adult into a shivering, vomiting, diarrhoea-ridden puddle within hours, has since been popping up across the region. Scientists were soon able to confirm the source of the infection. They found it was a perfect match for the specific strain circulating 14,000 kilometres away in Nepal. There had never been a confirmed case of cholera in Haiti before.
To many, inside the UN and out, it seemed the best thing would be to acknowledge the disaster, make amends, and move on. But that is not what the Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, and the UN's leadership decided to do. From the outbreak's first days, the staff of an organisation dedicated to establishing respect for the rule of law chose to lie, dissemble, destroy evidence, persuade allies to change the topic, and cajole critics.
For the past year, the UN has deflected questions by insisting it could not comment on a pending case. The victims' families thus found themselves in the awkward position of waiting for the organisation whose negligence had killed their loved ones to decide whether it would consider prosecuting itself.
Then, last week, the answer came back: No. Ban added a generic statement expressing sympathy for the thousands killed and hundreds of thousands made ill or left unable to work by the disease. His spokesman dodged all further questions.
The rationale for throwing out the case was blunt: the UN claimed total immunity from prosecution, liability and the law.
The UN's claim of immunity is ironic in Haiti, where a lack of immunity was the problem. Haitians had no resistance to the disease because they'd never been exposed to it. Cases tapered off but there are indications the disease is on the rise again.
It doesn't have to be this way. Cholera, which spreads through contamination of food or water, can be prevented with good sanitation. It is even easier to treat: medicine is usually not required, just the speedy replacement of lost fluids. The UN estimates it would cost $US2.27 billion ($2.2 billion) to provide the necessary infrastructure in Haiti over 10 years. The victims' lawyers have asked for up to $US100,000 in additional compensation for each of the families they represent. In all, the cost would probably be shy of $US3 billion.
To put that figure in perspective, the budget for UN forces in Haiti last year alone is $US644 million. Reduce the size of the nine-year-old peacekeeping mission in a country that is not at war, and you could start paying that debt down quickly. So what happens now? The UN could decide to pay on its own, perhaps without an admission of responsibility. But since its officials who have publicly lied about the case have since been promoted, that seems unlikely, without external pressure.
The families' lawyers have vowed to take the fight to the courts, hoping the denial of accountability will win the sympathy of a judge in Europe, Haiti or the United States. But it's a long shot. The world body will likely claim immunity there, too. The UN's interpretation of its own statutes is hard to overrule.
But there's one other document worth considering. ''To reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small. To establish conditions under which justice and respect for … international law can be maintained, and to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.''
Those words are from the preamble to the United Nations charter. It is not too late for the UN in Haiti to live up to them.