Washington Post editors challenge the UN's denial of responsiblity for cholera in Haiti

Enclosed are two editorials by the Washington Post on August 11 and 16, 2013 on the subject of UN responsiblity for the cholera epidemic in Haiti. The seocnd editorial is a response to a letter to the newspaper by Martin Nesirky, spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

The United Nations’ duty in Haiti’s cholera outbreak

By Editorial Board, Washington Post, published August 11, 2013

IT IS now all but certain that Haiti’s cholera epidemic, which has killed more than 8,000 people and sickened more than 600,000, is directly traceable to a battalion of U.N. peacekeeperswho arrived in the country after the 2010 earthquake. The United Nations and its peacekeepers have done immeasurable good in Haiti and elsewhere, but in this instance they bear responsibility for unleashing one of the world’s most devastating recent epidemics.

The peacekeepers, from Nepal, where cholera is endemic, established their base on the banks of a tributary that feeds one of Haiti’s main sources of drinking water, the Artibonite River. Owing to the base’s slapdash sanitation system — drainage sites containing human feces that flooded and overflowed in the rain — waste water flowed into the tributary and contaminated the river.

In a country where no cases of cholera had been recorded in more than 150 years, the disease spread so fast that within nine months of the battalion’s arrival in late 2010, the number of cholera-infected Haitians surpassed all recorded cholera infections in the rest of the world combined. Hundreds more will continue to die annually for years to come in a nation whose anemic health, hygiene and sanitation infrastructure is no match for the ravages of a water-borne disease.

report from researchers at the Yale School of Public Health and Yale Law School details the convincing epidemiological evidence, as well as the United Nations’ stubborn disavowal of responsibility. Initially, a panel of independent experts enlisted by the United Nations said that the evidence pointing to the peacekeepers was mainly circumstantial. Now the experts have reversed themselves, saying that the Nepalese peacekeepers were “most likely” the cause of the epidemic. Still, the United Nations refuses to accept legal, financial or moral responsibility.

Until now, the United Nations has asserted and enjoyed what amounts to blanket immunity from claims arising from its peacekeepers’ actions. There is a basis in law and logic for its stance. Given the range of nations, conflicts, disasters and chaotic environments in which U.N. personnel are deployed, the institution needs some protection from lawsuits and other claims for damages arising from its operations. Otherwise, it might never enter a risky place, thereby rendering itself useless.

Still, immunity in the courts, which the United Nations has enjoyed, does not justify a policy of institutional indifference. In the case of Haiti’s epidemic, U.N. officials have a moral obligation to right a wrong that has killed thousands.

That obligation goes beyond the legally tangled question of paying reparations to thousands of potential claimants in Haiti and the obvious need to ensure that U.N. installations and contractors meet higher standards of hygiene and sanitation. It involves the United Nations and its major donors, including the United States, adding resources to help Haiti build lasting improvements to its feeble public health system.

Haiti needs sewage treatment plants and municipal water facilities, as well as an effective primary health-care system accessible to people in rural areas as well as towns. Through UNICEF and the Pan American Health Organization, the United Nations should redouble its efforts to establish modern infrastructure in a country where 90 percent of the population lacks running water.

That’s not just part of the United Nations’ mission. It’s a matter of accountability and responsibility.


Letter to the Editor:

United Nations needs help fighting cholera in Haiti

Published in Washington Post, August 11, 2013

The Aug. 12 editorial “Righting a deadly wrong in Haiti” rightly drew attention to the heavy and tragic toll of the cholera epidemic and the continued need for more resources and support. The United Nations shares The Post’s concern. Since the onset of the epidemic, we have been on the ground every day responding to alerts of new cases, supporting medical care for victims, rehabilitating cholera-treatment centers, disinfecting health facilities, treating sewage, training health workers and providing much-needed medicines and vaccinations. This work goes with our longer-term efforts on improving water and sanitation infrastructure.

Last year, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon launched a drive to support Haiti’s long-term plan to eliminate cholera and end the epidemic. So far, only half of the $444 million needed for the next two years has been mobilized, and less than a quarter of the $40 million earmarked for humanitarian needs has been received.

The hurricane season is looming. Donors need to step up. With sufficient support, we can assist the people of Haiti in recovering from the double tragedy of earthquake and cholera, combat poverty and lay the foundations for stability and prosperity. This is what the people of Haiti need. Our job is to help them.

Martin Nesirky, New York
The writer is the spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.


United Nations must admit its role in Haiti’s cholera outbreak

By Editorial Board, Washington Post, published August 16 2013

On this page Thursday, the spokesman for United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon offered a response — or something closer to a non-response — to The Post’s editorial Sunday about the United Nations’ responsibility for, and response to, Haiti’s deadly cholera epidemic .

In a letter to the editor, Martin Nesirky, the spokesman, called attention to the United Nations’ wide-ranging and critically important work in providing aid and relief to victims of the cholera outbreak, to improving the country’s infrastructure so that it is less susceptible to such outbreaks in the future and to the pressing need for donors to open their wallets to help implement Haiti’s long-range campaign to eliminate the disease.

However, Mr. Nesirky pointedly ignored the editorial’s central focus, which is that the United Nations’ responsibility derives not only from its mission as a major humanitarian relief organization, but also from the growing body of evidence that the cholera outbreak originated with U.N. peacekeepers deployed to Haiti in 2010 following a devastating earthquake.

That is the conclusion of a range of experts, including a panel enlisted by the United Nations itself and, most recently, student researchers at Yale Law School and the Yale School of Public Health.

It may be the case that lawyers for the United Nations have forbidden the organization’s officials from addressing the topic or even mentioning the battalion of blue-helmeted Nepalese peacekeepers who are widely thought to have introduced the cholera virus into the nation’s largest river and main water supply.

Nonetheless, by refusing to acknowledge responsibility, the United Nations jeopardizes its standing and moral authority in Haiti and in other countries where its personnel are deployed.

In effect, the United Nations faces two important tasks to address the outbreak, which has killed more than 8,000 people and sickened well over 600,000, and it has undertaken only one. To its credit, the United Nations does seem to be pressing hard to help Haiti eradicate cholera and lesson the effect of the epidemic. And it is useful to remind donors, as Mr. Nesirky did in his letter, that just half of the $444 million goal has been met to fund Haiti’s anti-cholera program.

Yet without also speaking frankly about its own responsibility for introducing cholera to Haiti, the organization does a disservice to Haiti and Haitians, who deserve better.