In the fall of 2010, several months after a devastating earthquake struck Haiti, killing an estimated 200,000 people, cholera broke out in the country, sickening nearly as many Haitians as the earthquake and killing at least ten thousand more.
Last week, the United Nations, for the first time, acknowledged that its peacekeeping forces that were stationed in Haiti at the time likely played a role in causing the epidemic, a charge that was first brought by activists in 2013.
Thousands of the heavily-armed, blue-helmeted U.N. troops have been deployed in Haiti since the bloody 2004 ouster of then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. U.N. “peacekeepers” sent to conflict zones have long been accused of ineptitude and even intentional abuses of locals. The acknowledgment last week of carelessness by U.N. peacekeeping personnel in Haiti is yet another deserved black mark on the U.N.
For years, U.N. officials refused to accept blame for bringing cholera to Haiti, but suspicions — backed by assessments of medical experts — were long focused on a contingent of U.N. troops from the South Asian country of Nepal that arrived shortly after the earthquake. A cholera epidemic in Nepal was underway at the time, and sewage from the U.N. troops’ camp in Haiti was allowed to seep into an adjacent river.
A panel of experts appointed by the U.N. found that the strain of cholera that appeared so suddenly in Haiti was “a perfect match” for a strain found in Nepal.
The United Nations’ admission that it played a role in the deadly outbreak was forced by that finding and also by a strongly critical report on the cholera outbreak that top U.N. officials were recently provided. It was written by Philip Alston, a New York University law professor and U.N. special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, and is expected to be published late next month and presented by Ban at the U.N. General Assembly in October.
Mr. Alston wrote that the United Nations’ Haiti cholera policy “is morally unconscionable, legally indefensible and politically self-defeating,” adding: “It is also entirely unnecessary.” The organization’s continuing denial and refusal to make reparations to the victims, he asserted, “upholds a double standard according to which the U.N. insists that member states respect human rights, while rejecting any such responsibility for itself.”
Even while finally admitting its forces’ role in the cholera epidemic, the U.N. took pains to stress its legal non-culpability. U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq said that over the course of 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,” but added that, “Our legal position on this issue has not changed” — a restatement of the U.N.’s longstanding claim of immunity to lawsuits over its forces’ misdeeds.
That comment was directed to a 2013 lawsuit against the U.N., brought by the Boston-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti and a sister group in Haiti on behalf of 5,000 cholera victims. They want the U.N. to end cholera by installing a national water and sanitation system; pay reparations to cholera victims and their families; and publicly apologize for bringing cholera to Haiti.
Beatrice Lindstrom, an attorney with that group, said that even an acceptance of culpability could nevertheless make it more likely that plaintiffs will receive some financial compensation. She noted that, although “The U.N. has broad immunity from national courts,” that has “always been conditioned on providing remedies out of court to victims who are harmed by U.N. operations.” If only to help ensure that the U.N. act more responsibly in the future, the international body should not be able to walk away from its responsibilities here scot-free.
The entire human tragedy caused by the cholera epidemic in Haiti stands as an example of how an attempt to help can, if not undertaken wisely and carefully, turn out to wreak great harm.
And, considering the U.N.’s sorry record on Israel — the international group’s capitulation to its most immoral members’ hatred for Israel, its unconscionable focus on that one country’s imagined misdeeds and utter ignoring of the all-too-real offenses of her accusers, its coddling of criminal regimes at the expense of one democracy, its litany of slanderous resolutions about Israel, its employment of people who aid terrorists, its condemnations of Israel’s attempts to protect her citizens — the idea of “good ideas gone wrong” might well most meaningfully be applied to the organization itself.