Secretary-General Apologizes for UN's Role in Haiti's Devastating Cholera Outbreak


UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon offers a public apology for a role in Haiti’s devastating cholera outbreak.

The source of the 2010 cholera epidemic in Haiti that infected more 800,000 individuals and claimed over 9,300 lives has been a controversial subject over the years. Although some researchers have suggested that the outbreak may have been a negative effect of the earthquake that same year, others felt that it was a result of human activity. The latter claim led back to Nepali United Nations (UN) peacekeepers who adamantly denied the claims. Now, 6 years later, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a public apology for the UN’s role in the deadly outbreak.

The 2010 cholera outbreak in Haiti came right after the country was struggling to recover from a magnitude 7.0 Mw earthquake that resulted in over 222,000 deaths in January of 2010; 96 UN peacekeepers were among that number. As the people of Haiti struggled to reconstruct their lives, they were met with another tragedy only months later: cholera. Perhaps even more unsettling is that previous to the outbreak, Haiti had been cholera-free.

According to a press release, the outbreak infected sewage dumped by UN peacekeepers into the Artibonite River contaminated the Meye Tributary System. Despite this claim, the United Nations has not yet taken responsibility for these alleged actions, which officials say resulted in 800,000 people falling violently ill.

However, on December 1, Secretary-General Ban addressed 193 members of the UN General Assembly and said: “The United Nations deeply regrets the loss of life and suffering caused by the cholera outbreak. We apologize to the Haitian people.” He lamented, “We simply did not do enough with regard to the cholera outbreak and its spread in Haiti. We are profoundly sorry for our role.”

Although the apology did not take responsibility for the alleged actions, Secretar-General Ban acknowledged that the outbreak was “a blemish on the reputation of the UN peacekeeping.”

One of the efforts that were made to assist in outbreak control was the establishment of an independent panel who were instructed to “investigate and seek to determine the source” of the outbreak and conduct a number of “epidemiological, water and sanitation, and molecular analysis investigations.” In 2011, the panel issued a “Final Report” that was essentially inconclusive in finding the source. However, according to the press release, an article independently published 2 years later by panel members concluded that the UN peacekeepers were “the most likely source” of the outbreak.

In an effort to hold the UN peacekeepers accountable for their alleged actions, a lawsuit had been filed in the United States on behalf of the many victims of the outbreak. According to a journal article in Boston University School of Law’s International Law Journal, “The case is not only important to cholera victims who remain uncompensated in the face of UN wrongdoing, but more broadly highlights the incongruity between the UN’s mission to promote human rights and the rule of law and its refusal to abide by these values itself—an inconsistency that jeopardizes the organization’s legitimacy as the promoter of these principles worldwide.” The authors continued, “Ultimately, if the Georges Plaintiffs are successful, the case will establish a precedent that UN immunity does not and cannot mean impunity.” Much to many victims’ disdain, in August 2016, a US federal appeals court upheld the UN’s immunity.

In addition to issuing an apology, Ban has suggested an approach, one that he describes as “a concrete expression of the regret of our organization for the suffering,” designed to eliminate cholera from Haiti. This effort calls for the UN to raise $200 million that will go towards those who have been most affected by the outbreak. According to David Nabarro, UN special advisor, raising this money through donations is not probable; however, the General Assembly may be instructed to add this cost to the UN budget, one that comes from “assessed contributions,” according to the press release.

“A further $200 million would be raised to fund rapid response teams,” according to the press release, and these teams will be tasked with the development of effective water and sanitation systems in Haiti. UN leaders hope that with this financial help, Haiti will be able to “wipe out” cholera, allowing victims to finally rebuild their lives.

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