UN sued for introducing cholera to Haiti

Orphan Nixon Ducaste carries fellow orphan, Saul Mezier, in a tap-tap, a Haitian shared taxi, after they both were treated for cholera infection at a Doctors Without Borders facility in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

FOR decades, Haiti was plagued by human-made and natural disasters. But for more than a century it had no cholera, which thrives where sanitation infrastructure is negligible and personal hygiene is poor.

The United Nations has been accused not only of introducing the disease to Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake of Jan 12, 2010, but of denying that it did. Will Haiti’s cholera epidemic, which has killed 8,000 people, become for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon what the ‘oil for food scandal’ was for his predecessor, Kofi Annan?

Ban was named as defendant in a lawsuit in a Manhattan federal court two weeks ago, on behalf of Haiti’s victims of cholera, which, according to studies, was introduced by UN peacekeepers. The UN has refused to accept responsibility. Lawyers from the Boston-based Institution for Justice and Development in Haiti (IJDH), which prepared the class action, attempted to serve papers, but the UN claimed the immunity afforded to international civil servants and world bodies.

The lawsuit got the attention of Ban’s inner circle. UN-affiliated agencies are scrambling to raise funds to help Haiti. The UN’s deputy secretary general, Jan Eliasson, is helping the Haitian government eradicate the disease. A special coordinator, Pedro Medrano Rojas, is shuttling between Haiti and the UN headquarters. “We do everything we can to improve the situation [and] demonstrate the compassion that we feel,” for Haiti’s cholera victims, Eliasson said. “An estimated $140m has been spent or committed by the UN system in Haiti to respond to the epidemic since its outbreak,” Ban’s spokesman, Martin Nesirky, said.

But the IJDH, the Haiti advocacy group, is far from impressed. The UN has been promising to help Haiti for decades, the group’s director, Brian Concannon, said.

Annan was one of the architects of the ‘oil for food’ programme set up to help Iraqis, but which was corrupted by kickbacks, tainting officials in Annan’s inner circle. Ban’s accusers don’t fault him personally for the cholera, but point to the UN’s denials of its role in infecting 700,000 Haitians. The outbreak began in October 2010. Nepali members of the UN Stabilisation Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) are accused of bringing a cholera strain from Nepal to Haiti.

Some of Ban’s top aides said the UN should admit responsibility, compensate the victims, and help Haiti end the epidemic. Others worried that admitting guilt would endanger future UN operations: if Nepalese troops are accused, what country would want to contribute troops to UN peacekeeping?

Publicly, the UN denied the allegations that the disease originated from a MINUSTAH camp of 1,058 Nepalese troops. Ban’s aides still won’t admit culpability. “It is not the United Nations’s practice to discuss in public the details of, and the response to, claims filed against the organisation,” says Nesirky, who says Ban’s “commitment” to Haiti won’t diminish.

But Ban’s “cover-up” as detractors are calling it, might have contributed to the lawsuit. Concannon argued with his colleagues against suing. “I said we shouldn’t do it,” he said. He changed his mind when he realised that “not only the UN wouldn’t take responsibility” for the epidemic, “but they won’t do the things you need to do to eradicate the disease.”

The IJDH suit cites many reports, including one by an independent panel of experts named by Ban himself in January 2011, two months after the epidemic’s onset. Issued on May 4, 2011, that report concluded: “The evidence overwhelmingly supports the conclusion that the source of the Haiti cholera outbreak was due to contamination of the Meille tributary of the Artibonite River with a pathogen strain of current South Asian-type Vibrio cholerae as a result of human activity.”

Nevertheless, a task force assembled by the UN to evaluate the findings concluded that the panel’s report “does not present any conclusive scientific evidence linking the outbreak” to the peacekeepers.

The refusal to accept responsibility angers distinguished past and current UN officials. Annan’s former head of peacekeeping, Jean Marie Guenhenno, who now teaches at Columbia University, tweeted in August: “peacekeepers have done a lot for Haiti, but UN needs to come clean on cholera crisis.” The current UN human rights chief, Navi Pilay, recently recommended that Haitians “who suffered as a result of that cholera be provided with compensation.”

The lawsuit was initially on behalf of all of Haiti’s cholera victims, demanding $50,000 for each of the sick, and $100,000 for each of the dead. That would add up to $35bn. But the current suit is on behalf of five representative families of victims, demanding compensation to be decided later, as well as an apology, and a $2.2bn contribution to the disease eradication.

Countering the UN’s reliance on conventions that provide immunity, the complaint cites alleged violations of a pact between the UN peacekeepers and the government of Haiti.

Even if the lawsuit is rejected, Ban’s life would have been so much easier had he acknowledged culpability and moved on.

Follow Benny Avni on Twitter: @bennyavani


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