UN admits role in Haiti cholera outbreak that killed 10,000 people

A Haitian with symptoms of cholera is transported in a wheelbarrow in the slums of Cite-Soleil in Port-au-Prince November 19, 2010. © Eduardo Munoz
United Nations officials acknowledged, for the first time, the role peacekeepers played in the 2010 deadly cholera outbreak in Haiti that killed 10,000 people and sickened hundreds of thousands of others.

The Office of Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in an email this week said "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," reported the New York Times.

For six years, UN officials refused to accept blame for bringing cholera to Haiti, but suspicions settled on a group of UN troops from Nepal who arrived after the January 2010 earthquake. Nepal had a cholera epidemic underway at the time and raw sewage from the latrines at the UN troops’ came was allowed to seep into an adjacent river.

The earthquake crippled the capital of Port-au-Prince, killing 200,000 people, then the cholera outbreak sickened hundreds of thousands of others, and killing 10,000.

The families of 5,000 Haitian cholera victims petitioned the United Nations in 2011 for redress, but its Office of Legal Affairs simply declared their claims “not receivable.”

An attorney who represents Haitian cholera victims who have filed a suit in US federal court seeking reparations from the UN told the Washington Post that acceptance of culpability could make it more likely plaintiffs will finally receive financial compensation.

“The UN has broad immunity from national courts, but that has always been conditioned on providing remedies out of court to victims who are harmed by UN operations,” Beatrice Lindstrom told the Washington Post. “It has been in breach of the treaty granting it immunity in the first place, so if the UN follows through on remedies, that would make questions of immunity mute.”

UN “peacekeepers” were deployed to Haiti following the 2004 ouster of then-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

The deputy spokesman for the secretary-general, Farhan Haq, told the New York Times the United Nations will draft a new response within two months and present it "once it has been fully elaborated, agreed with the Haitian authorities and discussed with member states."

"This is a major victory for the thousands of Haitians who have been marching for justice, writing to the UN and bringing the UN to court," said Mario Joseph, a Haitian human rights lawyer representing victims of the epidemic.

The UN acknowledgment comes after top officials were provided a draft 19-page report by an adviser criticizing their handling of the cholera outbreak.

The report written by NYU law professor Philip Alston, the special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, will likely be published in September and present by Ban at the UN General Assembly in October.

Alston wrote that the United Nations’ Haiti cholera policy “is morally unconscionable, legally indefensible and politically self-defeating,”according to the New York Times.

Alston went beyond criticizing the Department of Peacekeeping Operations to blame the entire United Nations system. “As the magnitude of the disaster became known, key international officials carefully avoided acknowledging that the outbreak had resulted from discharges from the camp,” he noted.

When the outbreak occurred it spread rapidly in the muddy, crowded tent camps where Haitians had sought refuge after the quake. The disease continues to sicken Haitians, especially in rural parts of the country without access to clean drinking water. A new spike of infections has been reported this year.

A recent report by Doctors Without Borders has raised the possibility the disease may have killed far more Haitians than previously estimated.

The secretary-general stopped short of saying the United Nations caused the outbreak. The organization continues to hold the position it is immune from legal action as a result of the outbreak.