For the first time since a cholera epidemic believed to be imported by United Nations peacekeepers began killing thousands of Haitians nearly six years ago, the office of Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has acknowledged that the United Nations played a role in the initial outbreak and that a “significant new set of U.N. actions” will be needed to respond to the crisis.
The deputy spokesman for the secretary general, Farhan Haq, said in an email this week that “over the past year, the U.N. 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 will be presented publicly within the next two months, once it has been fully elaborated, agreed with the Haitian authorities and discussed with member states.”
The statement comes on the heels of a confidential report sent to Mr. Ban by a longtime United Nations adviser on Aug. 8. Written by Philip Alston, a New York University law professor who serves as one of a few dozen experts, known as special rapporteurs, who advise the organization on human rights issues, the draft language stated plainly that the epidemic “would not have broken out but for the actions of the United Nations.”
The secretary general’s acknowledgment, by contrast, stopped short of saying that the United Nations specifically caused the epidemic. Nor does it indicate a change in the organization’s legal position that it is absolutely immune from legal actions, including a federal lawsuit brought in the United States on behalf of cholera victims seeking billions in damages stemming from the Haiti crisis.But it represents a significant shift after more than five years of high-level denial of any involvement or responsibility of the United Nations in the outbreak, which has killed at least 10,000 people and sickened hundreds of thousands. Cholera victims suffer from dehydration caused by severe diarrhea or vomiting.
Special rapporteurs’ reports are technically independent guidance, which the United Nations can accept or reject. United Nations officials have until the end of this week to respond to the report, which will then go through revisions, but the statement suggests a new receptivity to its criticism.
In the 19-page report, obtained from an official who had access to it, Mr. Alston took issue with the United Nations’ public handling of the outbreak, which was first documented in mid-October 2010, shortly after people living along the Meille River began dying from the disease.Continue reading the main story
The first victims lived near a base housing 454 United Nations peacekeepers freshly arrived from Nepal, where a cholera outbreak was underway, and waste from the base often leaked into the river. Numerous scientists have since argued that the base was the only plausible source of the outbreak — whose real death toll, one study found, could be much higher than the official numbers state — but United Nations officials have consistently insisted that its origins remain up for debate.
Mr. Alston wrote that the United Nations’ Haiti cholera policy “is morally unconscionable, legally indefensible and politically self-defeating.” He added, “It is also entirely unnecessary.” The organization’s continuing denial and refusal to make reparations to the victims, he argued, “upholds a double standard according to which the U.N. insists that member states respect human rights, while rejecting any such responsibility for itself.”
He said, “It provides highly combustible fuel for those who claim that U.N. peacekeeping operations trample on the rights of those being protected, and it undermines both the U.N.’s overall credibility and the integrity of the Office of the Secretary-General.”
Mr. 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.
His most severe criticism was reserved for the organization’s Office of Legal Affairs, whose advice, he wrote, “has been permitted to override all of the other considerations that militate so powerfully in favor of seeking a constructive and just solution.” Its interpretations, he said, have “trumped the rule of law.”
Mr. Alston also argued in his report that, as The New York Times hasreported, the United Nations’ cholera eradication program has failed. Infection rates have been rising every year in Haiti since 2014, as the organization struggles to raise the $2.27 billion it says is needed to eradicate the disease from member states. No major water or sanitation projects have been completed in Haiti; two pilot wastewater processing plants built there in the wake of the epidemic quickly closed because of a lack of donor funds.
In a separate internal report released days ago after being withheld for nearly a year, United Nations auditors said a quarter of the sites run by the peacekeepers with the organization’s Stabilization Mission in Haiti, or Minustah, that they had visited were still discharging their waste into public canals as late as 2014, four years after the epidemic began.
“Victims are living in fear because the disease is still out there,” Mario Joseph, a prominent Haitian human rights lawyer representing cholera victims, told demonstrators in Port-au-Prince last month. He added, “If the Nepalese contingent returns to defecate in the water again, they will get the disease again, only worse.”
In 2011, when families of 5,000 Haitian cholera victims petitioned the United Nations for redress, its Office of Legal Affairs simply declared their claims “not receivable.” (Mr. Alston called that argument “wholly unconvincing in legal terms.”)
Those families and others then sued the United Nations, including Mr. Ban and the former Minustah chief Edmond Mulet, in federal court in New York. (In November, Mr. Ban promoted Mr. Mulet to be his chief of staff.) The United Nations refused to appear in court, claiming diplomatic immunity under its charter, leaving Justice Department lawyers to defend it instead. That case is now pending a decision from the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York.
The redress demanded by families of the 10,000 people killed and 800,000 affected would reach $40 billion, Mr. Alston wrote — and that figure does not take into account “those certain to die and be infected in the years ahead.”
“Since this is almost five times the total annual budget for peacekeeping worldwide, it is a figure that is understandably seen as prohibitive and unrealistic,” he said. Still, he argued: “The figure of $40 billion should stand as a warning of the consequences that could follow if national courts become convinced that the abdication policy is not just unconscionable but also legally unjustified. The best way to avoid that happening is for the United Nations to offer an appropriate remedy.”
Mr. Alston, who declined to comment for this article, will present the final report at the opening of the General Assembly in September, when presidents, prime ministers and monarchs from nearly every country gather at United Nations headquarters in New York.
Mr. Haq said the secretary general’s office “wanted to take this opportunity to welcome this vital report,” which he added “will be a valuable contribution to the U.N. as we work towards a significant new set of U.N. actions.”