Haiti, Cholera and the UN – a case of double standards

Frederick Owen:


As the UN General Assembly gathered last week for their annual summit in New York and respective heads of state debate important global issues such as the refugee crisis, international security and climate change, one issue is unlikely to receive much attention. 

In August, Farhan Haq, spokesperson for Ban Ki-Moon, admitted that the UN had a role in the cholera outbreak that official reports suggest has killed over 10,000 Haitians since 2010. After spending 5 years denying any connection between arrival of the UN’s post-earthquake relief effort and the introduction of a disease not previously prevalent to Haiti, Mr Haq announced that the UN will be relaunching its failed Cholera Eradication Program in Haiti to combat a disease whose infection rate has been increasing since 2013. 

The catalyst of this change came from within the UN: New York University Professor Phillip Alston, a legal advisor to Ban Ki-Moon, has concluded in a report to the secretary general that the epidemic “would not have broken out but for the actions of the UN”. Although this is likely to be watered down prior to being released to the public, it confirms what has been obvious to journalists, politicians and residents, both Haitian and foreign, for the past 5 years. 

The first reported victims of cholera in Haiti in 2010 all lived near a UN base on the Meille River which housed 454 UN Nepalese peacekeepers (Cholera is an active disease in Nepal). Poor sanitation planning meant that the waste disposal area of the base fed directly into the Meille River that flows directly into Haiti’s main waterway, the Artibonite. 

For a country whose urban infrastructure had been almost entirely destroyed by an earthquake measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale, the spread of a deadly waterborne disease such as cholera is every emergency relief agencies worst nightmare. Aside from the 10000 victims, 100,000s of family members have seen their lives changed forever and there exists a very real trust vacuum between Haitians and the foreign organisations that claim to want to help them. 

Since 2011, Mario Joseph, a prominent Haitian human rights lawyer has represented 5000 Haitian cholera victims in a legal struggle to receive compensation from the UN. The case was initially heard in a New York federal court, however, was then rejected after the UN refused to appear claiming diplomatic immunity under its charter. This decision was recently upheld by a US federal appeals panel where the defence was led by lawyers from the US justice department (As the biggest contributor to the UN the US was likely to have to pay a large share of the compensation). 

The prosecution is withholding an assessment of the result until after the UN announces its new Cholera Eradication Program for Haiti in conjunction with Mr Alston’s report. 

However, what questions does this raise about the legitimacy of UN intervention?  

According to Mr Alston himself, such a refusal to accept accountability and failing to make reparations to victims “upholds a double standard according to which the UN insists member states respect human rights while rejecting any such responsibility within its own actions”.  

Unless it can be properly held accountable surely the UNs credibility to intervene in emergency situations is undermined?  

As a multi-lateral organisation effectively only answering to itself or rather to the interests of its largest stake holders, does the UN have a right to assist countries like Haiti when they run the risk of making the situation worse?  

On a practical level even if the new eradication program reduces the number of cholera victims is this enough to restore the trust of the Haitian people that the UN is seeking to help? 

It seems anything short of apologising to Haitians will do little except illustrate the hypocrisy of UN intervention in the country, given that the estimated $2.27 billion required to eradicate the disease is unlikely to ever be raised by member states. 

Rather than a solution that has the welfare of the victims at its forefront it appears we have ended up with situation where their voices are overpowered by the UNs attempts to cover its own mistakes. ”