On Dec. 1, 2016, the United Nations (UN) Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, apologized for the UNs role in causing the Haitian cholera* epidemic. Ten thousand people were killed and 800,000 were made ill in 2010. At that time, a river system was infected with cholera by a UN peace keeping mission. This is considered the highest profile health and human rights case of the 21st century.
The responsibility of the UN to provide help in case of “personal injury, illness, or death” was clear. The cause of the delay of help has not been made clear, although “… the UN has compensated as a matter of course in the past”.
The victims of the epidemic did not back down. The two organizations representing the people were the Bureau des Avocates Internationaux (BAI) and the Institute for Justice and Democracy (IJDH). They sued the UN in 2013, which was a first for the UN. The suit was widely considered to be just, so that experts on international law agreed and even donated time to work on the case.
The cholera epidemic followed a massive earthquake in the poorest country in the western hemisphere. Haiti had never had a case of cholera before the UN peacekeepers arrived. An early editorial in the prestigious journal “The Lancet Infectious Disease” suggested that identifying the origin of the epidemic would be counter-productive, a stance difficult to understand from a scientific journal.
The Associated Press and Al Jazeera broke the story of the UN responsibility. As more evidence developed, later Lancet articles supported UN responsibility. Cholera had entered Haiti with Nepalese peacekeepers. Nepal had an cholera outbreak at the time and genetic evidence of the bacteria confirmed that Nepal was the origin of the epidemic.
The UN came under widespread criticism from some countries, former UN officials, and civil rights advocates. The lawsuit failed in the court of law due to a technicality. However, the lawsuit was successful in the “Court of Public Opinion”. The lawsuit kept the case in the public eye, but the UN has not accepted legal responsibility.
The UN has made a commitment of $200 million for cholera control, with a similar amount for relief of victims. The UN is not legally obligated to pay that money, and only a small amount has been donated by member countries. The UN should work to prevent similar events in the future. However, it has changed it’s handbook for field missions to “acknowledge that peacekeepers may pose a risk of introducing public health concerns into vulnerable populations”. No mention was made of prevention of such occurrences.
CONCLUSION: Cholera, which was unknown in Haiti, is now an endemic threat. A UN plan to eradicate cholera failed due to lack of funding. The money promised to victims must be handled with inclusion of the victims in the decisions. The BAI and IJDH will continue to make sure the UN does the right thing, legally and morally.
NOTES: *Cholera is the disease caused by the bacteria Vibrio cholera.
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