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Taking 'Major Steps Towards Justice,' UN Apologizes for Haiti Cholera Outbreak

'The U.N. has an obligation to recompense these people'

A scene from a Haitian protest against the U.N. in 2011, one year since the start of the cholera outbreak. (Photo: Ansel/cc/flickr)

Marking what one advocacy group hailed as "major steps towards justice," the United Nations on Thursday apologized for its role in the deadly cholera outbreak in Haiti.

Since the outbreak began in 2010—firmly linked to reckless sewage practices by a Nepalese contingent of U.N. peacekeepers—data from the World Health Organization shows that cholera has killed over 9,000 people and sickened over 780,000. Cholera victims have spent years seeking legal redress, but the U.N. has claimed immunity.

Speaking to the General Assembly, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said, "The United Nations deeply regrets the loss of life and suffering caused by the cholera outbreak in Haiti."

"On behalf of the United Nations, I want to say very clearly: we apologize to the Haitian people. We simply did not do enough with regard to the cholera outbreak and its spread in Haiti. We are profoundly sorry for our role."

Still, the New York Times notes, his statement "was delicately worded to avoid the impression that the United Nations was taking full responsibility for cholera in Haiti. That could imply legal culpability."

Just months ago, U.N. special rapporteur and New York University law professor Philip Alston said in a confidential report to Ban that the epidemic "would not have broken out but for the actions of the United Nations."

Ban on Thursday also issued a report (pdf) called A New Approach to Cholera in Haiti, which outlines a two-pronged strategy that will ostensibly "address the short- and longer-term issues of water, sanitation, and health systems" to boost "access to care and treatment"; and the "development of a package of material assistance and support to those Haitians most directly affected by cholera, centered on the victims and their families and communities."

"Secretary-General Ban's apology itself is a victory," said Dan Beeton, who directs communications for the Center for Economic and Policy Research's International Program. Still, he noted, "There's a great deal that must be done to move forward and make this right."

Beeton told Common Dreams that the apology represented a "dramatic shift," as "[j]ust a few years ago, Ban and other high-level U.N. officials were dodging media questions about the U.N.'s role in Haiti's cholera." Echoing the observation made by the Times, Beeton noted that "Ban conspicuously still did not own up to the U.N.'s role in causing the epidemic."

"The number one priority, as Secretary-General Ban put it yesterday, must be cholera elimination. Unfortunately, the international community has demonstrated little interest in supporting the U.N. and Haitian government's plan for cholera eradication; just a tiny fraction of the funding needed has been committed so far," he continued.

Indeed, U.N. special advisor David Nabarro said last month that it has "proved to be very hard indeed to get any traction" from member states.

Brian Concannon, executive director of Institute for Justice and Democracy In Haiti, added to the Times, "The U.N. and its member states will have to rise to the challenge and actually fund and effectively execute the projects."

Beeton also said the second track of the approach regarding victim compensation was also very important. "Cholera victims and their families have endured a great economic toll, as well as the physical and psychological suffering caused by cholera infection—and too often, resulting deaths. The U.N. has an obligation to recompense these people."

Some of the victims of the outbreak welcomed the words from the U.N. head but underscored their right to compensation.

Eliza Vilne, representing the group of cholera victims in Lachapelle, for one, said, "I want to say 'hold on' because the battle isn't over. We accept this apology—it's right that if you do wrong, you apologize. But we don't accept the sum [$400 million] the Secretary General talked about and we don't accept that they can give us charity. They can't just give a little project and then it will be over; they need to compensate each victim personally," she said.

Fresh cases were fueled by Hurricane Matthew's strike in October, and the sickness continues to claim lives in the impoverished nation. 

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