Debate Continues Over U.N. Role In Bringing Cholera To Haiti

Aug 18, 2016
Originally published on August 22, 2016 1:43 pm

For the first time the United Nations is signaling it may be on the verge of admitting that its peacekeepers introduced cholera into Haiti in 2010. Over the last 6 years that outbreak has claimed sickened nearly a million Haitians and claimed more than 9,000 lives.

Critics of the agency say that the U.N.'s failure to take responsibility for the outbreak has been a public relations nightmare and an insult to the people of Haiti.

The outbreak began in October of 2010. At that time, cholera hadn't been reported in Haiti in more than 100 years.

Several investigations including by the U.N. itself have linked the outbreak to sewage from a base for Nepalese peacekeepers, who were part of an ongoing mission. The troops had recently arrived in Haiti. Witnesses reported seeing overflowing toilets at the base spilling waste into a local stream. The strain of cholera that erupted in Haiti was very similar to a strain of the bacteria circulating at the time in Nepal.

Cholera causes intense vomiting and diarrhea. The patient loses so much fluid so quickly that the disease can prove fatal in a matter of days.

The disease spreads when feces from an infected person contaminates drinking water. Once cholera got a foothold in Haiti, it ran rampant in the country's open sewers and untreated water supplies.

For years Haitians have been blaming the U.N. for this outbreak, even spraying painting "UN=Kolera" on the walls of the peacekeeping base. The U.N. has denied responsibility.

The U.N.'s refusal to accept responsibility for sparking the outbreak led to violent protests in the streets of Port au Prince in 2010 and stoked distrust between Haitians and the troops that are supposed to be helping them.

Now a spokesman for U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon says the U.N. may be about to shift its position. Speaking to reporters at a press briefing from U.N. headquarters in New York on Thursday, Farhan Haq said the U.N. "needs to do much more regarding its own involvement in the initial outbreak."

"What we are doing is trying to see how this can be resolved," Haq told reporters. "How to resolve this. How to do the right thing. And that is something that remains under discussion."

He said a new plan for handling this question should be disclosed in the next 2 months.

Dr. Louise Ivers, senior health and policy adviser with Partners in Health, says the U.N. should have acknowledged its role in introducing cholera in to Haiti years ago. PIH has treated many of the hundreds of thousands of cholera patients at its clinics across the country.

"It's been a long time coming," she says. "It's about time that they accept responsibility."

Brian Concannon, a human rights lawyer with the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, brought a class action suit in 2013 against the U.N. on behalf of Haitians who became sick or lost loved ones in the outbreak. He welcomes the new statements from the U.N. Secretary General's office but says the organization still "clearly did not definitively take responsibility for introducing cholera."

Concannon says the U.N.'s position has been an "affront to [the] dignity" of Haitians: "This big organization that has been tasked by the world to promote human rights and accountability and the rule of law has been denying something that was so clearly undeniable. It's really a slap in the face for the U.N. to lie about something when everyone in Haiti knew the U.N. was lying. And everybody in Haiti knew that the U.N. knew that everybody knew it was lying."

The U.N. countered Concannon's class action lawsuit by saying it is immune under international law from such legal actions.

Today, spokesman Farhan Haq said despite the organization revisiting its role in the initial outbreak, the U.N.'s legal view on the organization's immunity has not changed.

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Months after the devastating 2010 earthquake struck Haiti, a cholera epidemic swept across the country and since claimed more than 9,000 lives. Now the United Nations is signaling that it might have to concede that it was their own peacekeeping mission that introduced cholera to Haiti.

Several investigations have linked the outbreak to sewage from a U.N. base, but the U.N., until now, has denied involvement. NPR's Jason Beaubien joins me to talk about this. And, Jason, for years, people have been blaming the U.N. for this outbreak, and they had denied it. Are they now finally saying, yes, the U.N. peacekeeping mission was to blame?

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Not entirely, no. A spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon today at a press conference in - did his normal press briefing at the headquarters of the U.N. in New York, and he said the U.N. needs to do much more regarding its own involvement in the initial outbreak.

And the shift here is that in the past, they have been completely unwilling to talk about what the U.N.'s involvement was in this initial outbreak, despite the overwhelming evidence that this outbreak seems to have been caused by sewage that was coming out of this U.N. base and inadvertently sparked this massive outbreak. They've just been unwilling to come out and really talk about that part of what happened.

CORNISH: But how come? I mean, if people have been looking at this evidence, why have they been so unwilling to talk about their role in this?

BEAUBIEN: So this was 2010. It was right after that massive earthquake which leveled much of the capital Port-au-Prince. It has also turned into a huge public health crisis in Haiti. You had people die from dehydration, from vomiting and this acute diarrhea. It's just - it's an awful disease, and they didn't really want to be linked to saying, we're the ones that did this. And they also were concerned about lawsuits that people might be claiming that they are financially responsible for their family members who died.

CORNISH: So why now?

BEAUBIEN: It's interesting why now. I mean, there is possibly some speculation that Ban Ki-Moon has been dealing with this for years and wants to finally put this behind him. Also, they commissioned an independent panel to look at this, and the panel came out from what we hear from some leaked reports and very strongly said the U.N. is basically shooting itself in the foot by continuing to make this their position and that it's not doing any good. Also the U.N.'s position has been that legally it's immune from these legal challenges anyway, and the spokesman for Ban Ki-Moon today again said that that is their legal position, that it hasn't changed.

And so coming out and actually acknowledging it would not put them at risk for these types of damages that people are asking. The bigger question here and really why people are really watching this case is - the question is can the U.N. be held accountable for something like this? And that's what's really in the balance here in this particular case.

CORNISH: In the meantime, what has happened with the cholera outbreak since? Where are we now in Haiti with this?

BEAUBIEN: So the numbers have gone down, but cholera is still there. It's still a problem. People are still dying from it, from this outbreak which started back in 2010, so it's continuing, continues to be a problem. You know, I talked to some people that worked there, some medical people, and they - on this issue of the U.N. taking responsibility - they said it's about time. So cholera has been one more health problem added to Haiti's long list of woes.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Jason Beaubien. Jason, thanks so much.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.