UN Admits Role in Haiti’s Cholera Outbreak After Years of Denial

KIM BROWN, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News.

As Haiti was struggling to rebuild after the devastating earthquake that crumbled the country in 2010, they were struck again by another disaster, a cholera outbreak that ended up killing about 10,000 people and sickened hundreds of thousands. Many Haitians immediately pointed the finger at United Nations troops for causing the outbreak, claims that the UN long denied until now. A spokesperson for UN Secretary Ban Ki Moon said in a statement to the New York Times that “The UN has become convinced that it needs to do much more regarding its involvement in the initial outbreak and the suffering of those affected by cholera.

We’re joined today with Brian Concannon. He’s the executive director at the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti. He’s also an attorney representing some of the families of the victims of the cholera outbreak. Brian thank you so much for joining us.

BRIAN CONCANNON: Well thank you for having me Kim. It’s great to be with you.

BROWN: Brian, this recent statement is certainly an about face from the United Nations actually admitting in part their role in this terrible outbreak. Has this admission come as a surprise for you?

CONCANNON: It does come as a surprise. But I think it’s also important to note as you did that they’re admitting in part. And here we are 6 years after the epidemic broke out when for at least 5 years there was debate about whether the UN was responsible. And it still doesn’t exactly admit what everybody else knows, that it’s responsible. So we are optimistic but cautious as well.

BROWN: Brian, you represent the families of the cholera victims in a lawsuit against the UN. In 2013 the United Nations said that affected Haitians had no claims for compensation because a the UN asserted that it has immunity from such claims. What is the status of this case and how does the UN’s admissions change things?

CONCANNON: Well I think the UN’s admissions were very carefully crafted to not change anything. It allows the UN to continue to deny in the lawsuit that it had anything to do with it and to evade responsibility. The lawsuit is up on appeal before the US court of appeals for the second circuit. We’re waiting for the decision. We don’t think that this case, that the UN statement will formally effect the case in any way.

What will affect the case is that if the UN actually comes through on its promises to take significant action. If the UN actually puts in the water and sanitation that it’s promised to do before and if it compensates the victims, we’ll have nothing to fight and go to court. But until the UN does that, we’re committed to using every possible avenue to enforce the respect of our clients’ rights.

BROWN: Now the outbreak was reportedly caused by UN troops from Nepal who was experiencing a cholera outbreak itself. Nepal was in the year 2010. But plus even before that the appearance of cholera in Haiti was so unusual because the disease had largely been wiped away from the western hemisphere. And what I remember about that coverage of Haitians in 2010 during the cholera outbreak, I recall them so clearly, definitively saying that yes it was UN troops who caused this. Their certainty really stuck me. Did you, were you also struck by how convinced people were at the time when the outbreak was immediately happening that they knew exactly where the cause was coming from?

CONCANNON: It was striking at how quickly Haitians pointed the finger and every serious bit of evidence since then has proven that they were right. It started with epidemiological evidence. The fact that the cholera outbreak started a few hundred yards below the UN Peacekeepers Camp. Plus old factory evidence. It just smelled bad.

When journalists went to the camp, they could smell the sewage leaking onto it. And that was confirmed by [monstruction] of the cholera molecules in Haitians bodies was like that of the cholera molecule in Nepal. And finally confirmed by genetic studies which showed a near exact match between the cholera strain in Nepal and the cholera strain in Haiti. So it’s been – the Haitians conclusion that it was the UN at fault was very quick and hasty but it turned out to be 100% accurate.

BROWN: And to your knowledge has the United Nations changed the way that their troops deal with sanitation issues when they are going to impacted areas of either for natural disaster or for you know warzones, etc. Has the United Nations learned from the devastating outbreak that happened in Haiti?

CONCANNON: That’s a very good question. Immediately after the cholera epidemic, the United Nations said it had learned the lessons and talked about changing its treatment of waste. But a UN report, its own internal investigation report that was leaked last week or released last week – it concluded that the UN even in Haiti was continuing to release untreated sewage directly into Haiti’s environment as recently as last year. So I think it’s safe to say the UN hasn’t really learned a lesson. I think there needs to be continued pressure on the organization to really take it seriously, the safety of the host communities where its missions are deployed.

BROWN: And lastly Brian, as you said it’s been 6 years since this outbreak occurred. Can you give us an idea about how are your clients doing. How are the families of people who passed away as a result of being exposed to cholera or those who even were able to recover. What has life been like for them in these past several years?

CONCANNON: Life’s been increasingly difficult. For many families, wives, parents, obviously losing a child or any relative is emotionally very difficult. Losing a parent in particular is economically difficult. Families have been relegated to generational poverty because they had to withdraw their children from school when they lost a salary and couldn’t pay school fees. [inaud.] In 2016 the first 6 months were worse than any similar period since 2013. 21,000 Haitians have been sick officially, just so far in 2016. So people are continuing to suffer. They’re continuing to die and the people who aren’t suffering and dying are deeply afraid that they or their family members will be struck by the disease.

BROWN: Well we are all, I guess, encouraged by the announcement from the United Nations at least admitting their partial role or some complicity in the cholera outbreak that happened in Haiti in the year 2010. We have been speaking with Brian Concannon. He is the executive director at the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti. Brian we really appreciate your time.

CONCANNON: Well thank you Kim [inaud.] story.

BROWN: And I’m Kim Brown, and you’ve been watching the Real News Network.