An admission earlier this week by Bill Clinton, former US President and now the United Nation's Special Envoy to Haiti, that it was UN soldiers who likely spurred a deadly cholera outbreak in the Caribbean nation was a welcome development for many Haitians. Since the epidemic, unleashed in the aftermath of a deadly earthquake in 2010, the UN has consistently denied responsibility for introducing the deadly virus.
The path forward, according to international experts and health professionals, is for the international community, especially the United States, which brought the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) troops to Haiti, to take responsibility for the health crisis by taking a proactive role in rebuilding Haiti's water and sanitation infrastructure.
“The UN ignored warnings about the lethal impact that cholera would have in Haiti, and allowed human waste from its base to poison Haiti’s central river. The UN must now accept responsibility for the deaths it has caused,” said Mario Joseph, Managing Attorney of the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI). The BAI represents over 5,000 victims of cholera who filed claims with the UN, seeking nationwide investments in water and sanitation infrastructure, compensation for the individual victims, and a public apology.
“President Clinton’s acknowledgement, as a UN official, should bring us one step closer to the UN taking responsibility for what it has done, and fixing it.” said Mark Weisbrot, Co-Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR).
“The deaths and disease from the cholera in Haiti will only be eliminated, as they were from Latin America after the 1991 outbreak, when Haiti has adequate drinking water and sanitation,” Weisbrot continued. “Since the UN brought this disease to Haiti – through its own carelessness – it is now the United Nations’ responsibility to provide this infrastructure.”
Although senior UN officials have previously attempted to attribute the epidemic to other causes, an independent panel that prepared a report (pdf)for the UN also found that UN troops were most likely responsible. One of the authors of the report, Daniele Lantagne, said “The most likely scenario is that someone associated with the UN MINUSTAH facility was the person responsible,” in an interview with Aljazeera posted online yesterday.
Other studies published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the New England Journal of Medicine, and the most definitive study by 15 scientists last August, all reached the same conclusion as to the origin of the bacteria.
Earlier this week, U.S. Permanent Representative to the UN Susan Rice called on the UN to take responsibility for the outbreak, urging it to “redouble its efforts to prevent any further incidents of this kind and to ensure that those responsible are held accountable.”
The statement was welcomed by the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), who considered it an important step in the right direction. IJDH Director Brian Concannon Jr., said in a statement, “It is time for the UN to embrace accountability for its actions, and stop the cholera’s killing.”
Haitians march in protest to UN compound; Victims demand justice
Al-Jazeera reports today:
Hundreds of Haitians [on Thursday] marched from the United Nation's base in the capital, Port-au-Prince, to the country's parliament, demanding compensation and justice for the victims of the cholera epidemic blamed on the global body's peacekeepers.
The protesters said they want the UN to be held accountable, but the organisation denies any responsibility.
Brian Concannon, director of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti and one of the lawyers who has filed claims against the UN on behalf of cholera victims, put the blame on the UN.
Concannon told Al Jazeera: "The proximate cause of the epidemic are the UN and they are to blame."
Writing recently at Common Dreams Laura Carasik, a Clinical Professor of Law and the Director of the International Human Rights Clinic, disarms the argument often made by the UN that it cannot be held liable for the poor quality of Haiti's sanitation infrastructure which allowed the cholera, once introduced, to spread.
Despite the strong evidence of malfeasance, the UN endeavors to insulate itself from liability by laying the blame for the spread of cholera on the conditions in Haiti that made it a particularly hospitable vector for transmission of the disease. This defense flies in the face of traditional theories of tort liability, which require that wrongdoers take their victims as they find them. In essence, the “eggshell skull” rule holds that negligent actors cannot escape liability for the harms they cause by pointing to the particular vulnerability of their victims. This is exactly what the UN has done in this instance in attempting to attribute the epidemic to a “confluence of factors” endemic to Haiti rather than its own conduct.
As the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti’s woefully inadequate infrastructure for health and sanitation could surprise no one. The UN, along with the Centers for Disease Control and others had been warning of a cholera outbreak since the earthquake. Cognizant of the fragile conditions in Haiti, and the risk for the spread of cholera that such conditions presented, the UN should have taken heightened precautions to ensure that its peacekeepers were not carrying potentially epidemic diseases, and further exercised sound oversight of the waste disposal procedures. The Independent Panel’s own recommendations for future safeguards demonstrate that such precautions were feasible. Wrongdoing on the part of the United Nations is beyond dispute: the UN tacitly admits as much in its report. By any standard, the UN was negligent.
Weisbrot said the need for action was particularly important ahead of the seasonal rains in Haiti. “Cholera incidence rises and declines with the rainy and dry seasons, respectively. It’s important now that everyone does everything they can to prevent, mitigate, and treat cholera now, or we will see a lot more lives lost," he said.