One Thousand Days of Cholera : Almost 8,200 Killed and Still No UN Apology

by Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR)
A sad milestone has passed: it has now been 1,000 days since Haiti’s cholera outbreak began. Even though U.N. troops from Nepal have been linked to the outbreak through study after study, and even though U.N. Special Envoy for Haiti Bill Clinton admitted the troops were the “proximate cause” of the epidemic, the U.N. has yet to apologize. And its cholera eradication plan remains woefully underfunded, as we noted last week.
The Economist writes today of the U.N.’s continuance in dodging responsibility:

In a letter to members of the United States Congress who had urged the UN to take responsibility for the cholera outbreak, Ban Ki Moon, the UN’s secretary-general, reiterated that the UN’s legal office has decided the claims are “not receivable” because of the UN’s privileges and immunities. The UN has offered little insight into its reasoning, except that consideration of the claims would involve a review of “political and policy matters”. That statement has only raised more questions, including whether “dumping disease-laden waste water in rivers is UN policy,” as a reporter asked at a press briefing last week.

Critics argue that the UN’s stance is tantamount to claiming impunity—that the UN, an organisation whose mission involves promoting the rule of law, is putting itself above it. The Haitians’ lawyers now plan to sue the UN in Haitian and United States courts. If a court decides to hear the claims, the case could have far-reaching implications for peacekeeping practices around the world.

The bacterium, meanwhile, has killed nearly 8,200 Haitians and made unwell close to 665,000, about 7% of the population. Waterborne diseases spread fast in Haiti because the country lacks proper sewerage. The rainy season is especially problematic, and although Tropical Storm Chantal did not make a direct hit on Haiti last week, the additional rain will probably cause cholera cases to spike.
The Economist goes on to note that “Mr Ban’s letter stated that pledges for the cholera initiated amounted to $207m, $31m less than the UN said would be available last December.”

Reuters cited the lawyers’ (from the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti) response to Ban’s letter:

“The U.N.’s latest explanation last week, in response to a letter of May 30 signed by 19 members of the House of Representatives, was a one-line sentence. They and the cholera victims deserve a better and more just response,” IJDH head Brian Concannon told Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“There were also disingenuous and not quite accurate claims made about the U.N.’s progress in combating cholera that haven’t had impact on the ground,” Concannon, a human rights lawyer, said in a telephone interview from Boston.  

He said the U.N. has refused to consider resolving the cholera victims’ claims outside of court, meet with victims or their lawyers, and set up a claims commission as required by its own treaty.

Reuters also noted the urgency in addressing cholera, an urgency that has accompanied the rainy seasons and hurricane seasons for close to three years now:

With the start of the rainy and hurricane season, aid agencies say cholera cases are set to increase, with a 40 percent rise in Haiti’s cholera cases already reported between May and June of this year in Haiti, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

“Predictions suggest up to 100,000 people could be affected by the end of the year, while funding gaps have led to a serious decrease in the capacity to respond,” OCHA said in its latest report on Haiti.

Even before the passing of Tropical Storm Chantal last week, cholera cases had begun rising even faster. The first week of July saw the most reported cases since January, with 13 deaths reported in just the first six days of the month. While Haiti remains vulnerable to deadly flooding and landslides from storms, the most devastating impact could very well be the assured increase of cholera in the storm’s wake.
A public apology is one of the demands in IJDH’s lawsuit against the U.N. Considering the nature of U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s response to members of Congress, as described by The Economist, it seems that a successful lawsuit may be the only way to get it.