LIKE CLIMATE change deniers, the United Nations for years has stood virtually alone against the weight of scientific opinion on its own peacekeepers’ responsibility for the outbreak of cholera six years ago in Haiti, which continues to suffer from the world’s worst epidemic of that deadly disease. That stance, regarding an epidemic that has killed more than 10,000 people and infected hundreds of thousands, is “morally unconscionable, legally indefensible and politically self-defeating,” according to a new report from a top adviser to the organization. Not to mention scientifically obtuse.
Spurred by the report from Philip Alston, a New York University law professor who is a human rights adviser to the organization, the U.N. is finally acknowledging its complicity in Haiti’s cholera crisis. Breaking a steely silence, a spokesman for Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told the New York Times that the organization “needs to do much more regarding its own involvement in the initial outbreak and the suffering of those affected by cholera.” A new policy will be prepared after consultations with Haitian officials and other governments.
It is difficult to overstate the damage the U.N. has done to its own prestige and moral standing by its pig-headed denialism. The disease, absent from the country for at least a century, struck soon after the arrival in 2010 of several hundred peacekeeping troops from Nepal, which at the time was struggling with a cholera outbreak. Untreated waste from the peacekeepers’ base was discharged into an adjacent river and, in short order, Haitians in nearby villages began to get sick and die. In a nation with paltry infrastructure and an anemic public health system, the disease spread quickly.
Epidemiologists soon traced the outbreak, and even the specific strain of cholera, to the U.N. base, concluding there was no other plausible source of the disease. Despite that, U.N. officials adopted a three-monkeys policy: They saw nothing. They heard nothing. They said nothing.
That tone-deaf stance appeared driven by U.N. lawyers, loath to crack the shell of legal immunity they insisted was the U.N.’s birthright. Doubtless, they feared any admission that might expose the organization to billions of dollars of claims in lawsuits arising from deaths and infections, not to mention from people affected in the future.
That lawyerly posture was heedless of the U.N. charter, whose preamble affirms its commitment to human rights, “better standards of life” and other goals at odds with a flat refusal to own up to the facts in Haiti.
The reality, which the U.N. at last seems ready to accept, is that the organization must recognize its responsibility and renew its commitment to combat cholera in Haiti and strengthen the nation’s public health infrastructure, which the organization has previously pledged to improve, to little effect. That may be difficult and costly; the alternative was untenable.