For the last six years, the United Nations has held fast to a deadly and amoral bit of fiction in Haiti. It is now generally settled truth that UN peacekeepers from Nepal introduced a ravaging cholera epidemic to the island in 2010. The genetic evidence, after all, seems incontrovertible: The Nepalese let their sewage flow into a Haitian stream, contaminating it with the vibriocholerae microbe that causes severe diarrhea, dehydration, and agonizing death. Since then, this scourge has infected an estimated 800,000 people and killed as many as 10,000.
The United Nations has consistently denied responsibility, taking cover in the principle of diplomatic immunity. It has even gone to court in New York to fight claims of damage. But this fiction began to unwind last week, when the office of Secretary General Ban Ki-moon took the unprecedented step of acknowledging a UN role in the outbreak. A UN spokesman told The New York Times that a new response will be forthcoming — although Haiti will have to wait a month or two longer to see what shape that takes.
Ban’s statement could, and should, transform a shameful stalemate. It comes after he received a confidential report earlier this month by New York University law professor Philip Alston. Alston was correct when he reported, in the bluntest possible language, that the UN’s policy on cholera in Haiti “is morally unconscionable, legally indefensible, and politically self-defeating.” The world can hope that Alston, an expert adviser to the UN known as a special rapporteur, carries the status needed to push recalcitrant diplomats onto a higher moral plain.
A spokesperson said the US State Department “welcomes collaboration between the UN and Haiti, and discussion with UN member states, to devise appropriate additional actions in response to the crisis.” The United States has dedicated $95 million in aid to fund prevention programs and to address local outbreaks of the disease.
But the UN’s promises don’t amount to a cure. The real test is what happens next. The UN should follow quickly with a transparent and victim-centered process that ensures real action. Victims’ voices must be put at the center of the process. Haitians deserve a sweeping apology, compensation for families who have suffered, and robust investment in water and sanitation infrastructure to eliminate cholera.
“In Haiti we say viktwa se pou pep la — victory is for the people,” said Mario Joseph, managing attorney of the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, which has led a campaign for justice and reparations for victims of cholera since 2011. “This is a major victory for the thousands of Haitians who have been marching for justice, writing to the UN, and bringing the UN to court.”
The Charter of the United Nations was signed in late 1945, as shaken nations emerged from a global conflict. Human rights and cooperation are at its core. The UN has taken an important first step and should work with the people of Haiti to end the epidemic once and for all.