Blue-helmeted U.N. “peacekeepers” sent to conflict zones have long suffered from a reputation for passivity. But the acknowledgment this week by U.N. officials that its troops bear responsibility for Haiti’s cholera epidemic comes at a time when the organization is already facing criticism for undermining countries it has been sent to stabilize.
The United Nations’ admission that its forces played a role in triggering Haiti’s 2010 cholera outbreak is seen as a long-overdue official recognition of something that has been widely known — but stubbornly denied by U.N. leaders — for years.
It follows accusations this year that U.N. peacekeepers have committed rape and murder in the Central African Republic, and more recently that they failed to defend aid workers against brutal attacks in South Sudan.
Critics say these scandals have laid bare the United Nations’ struggles to police its forces and investigate claims of wrongdoing and abuse, whether in cases of negligence — such as Haiti — or the allegations of more serious crimes in Africa.
When the United Nations fails to accept its responsibility as well, said Akshaya Kumar, the deputy U.N. director at New York-based Human Rights Watch, the peacekeeping system breaks down.
“I think one of biggest losses from cases like this is loss of trust between U.N. and communities they’re sent to serve; that is really hard to rebuild,” she said.
That has been the case in Haiti, where thousands of heavily-armed troops with U.N. blue helmets have been deployed since the bloody 2004 ouster of then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti is resented by many Haitians who view the foreign troops as an occupying force. But their role in policing the volatile country is considered critical by international donors and foreign governments.
U.N. officials have refused for years to accept blame for bringing cholera to Haiti, but suspicions have long settled on a contingent of U.N. troops from Nepal who arrived after the January 2010 earthquake that devastated the capital of Port-au-Prince. A cholera epidemic in Nepal was underway at the time, and raw waste from the latrines at the U.N. troops’ camp in Haiti was allowed to seep into an adjacent river.
In a statement sent to The Washington Post, Farhan Haq, a deputy spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, said that the organization has become convinced in the past year that it needs to do much more regarding its own involvement in the initial cholera outbreak in Haiti and the suffering of those affected by the disease, which has sickened hundreds of thousands and left about 10,000 dead.
The U.N. acknowledgment, first reported by the New York Times, comes after top officials were provided a draft report by an adviser criticizing their handling of the cholera outbreak.
Haiti’s 2010 earthquake left as many as 200,000 dead, and the damage has been compounded since then by periodic flare-ups of cholera. A recent report by Doctors Without Borders has raised the possibility the disease may have killed far more Haitians than previously estimated.
Cholera spread virulently in the muddy, crowded tent camps where destitute Haitians took refuge after the quake. Nearly six years later, the disease continues to claim new victims, particularly in rural parts of the country without access to clean drinking water. A new spike in infections has been reported this year.
Haq said the Haiti report, written by Philip Alston, a New York University law professor and U.N. special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, would probably be published late next month and presented by Ban at the U.N. General Assembly in October. Alston did not respond to requests for comment.
The United Nations “wanted to take this opportunity to welcome this vital report,” Haq said.
Without giving details, Haq said the draft report criticizing the U.N. handling of the outbreak, and its recommendations, “will be a valuable contribution to the U.N. as we work toward a significantly new set of U.N. actions."
He said the United Nations has been working to fight cholera since the outbreak but would present a new set of measures after discussions with Haitian authorities and U.N. member states.
A U.N. spokesman who was asked about the report Thursday said the organization’s legal position “had not changed” and that it was working to “figure out how to resolve” questions of its responsibility in the outbreak. The U.N. charter affords the organization broad diplomatic immunity from lawsuits and other legal action.
Beatrice Lindstrom, an attorney for Haitian cholera victims who have filed a suit in U.S. federal courts seeking reparations from the U.N., said an acceptance of culpability could make it more likely that plaintiffs will finally receive financial compensation.
“The U.N. has broad immunity from national courts, but that has always been conditioned on providing remedies out of court to victims who are harmed by U.N. operations,” Lindstrom said. “It has been in breach of the treaty granting it immunity in the first place, so if the U.N. follows through on remedies, that would make questions of immunity mute.”
But Robert Fatton Jr., a Haitian-born political scientist at the University of Virginia, said Haq’s statement amounted to little more than “the idea that the U.N. might be more receptive to its own criticism.”
“Will that entail more than just empty promises to address the problem?” Fatton asked. “The question is whether the report will lead to some form of compensation for the victims of the epidemic and whether the moral outcry resulting from the U.N.’s irresponsibility will begin to erode the notion that the organization should continue to enjoy diplomatic immunity.”