Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

Real work on cholera must follow UN apology

In response to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s apology to Haitians for the cholera outbreak in 2010, many cholera advocates have called for the UN and its member states to demonstrate its commitment to ridding Haiti of cholera through effective action. Brian Concannon underscores this, with a quote that, “words alone, won’t save lives or remove the stain on the UN’s reputation.”

After UN apology, real work on cholera in Haiti begins

Boston Globe

December 2, 2016

A Haitian man with cholera symptoms receives medical attention at Saint Antoine Hospital of Jeremie in southwestern Haiti. (Photo from original article)


The United Nations offered Haiti a lackluster apology this week for its role in a deadly cholera outbreak on the island nation. Donor nations, including the United States, must do better in delivering material relief.

Cholera did not exist in Haiti before a group of UN peacekeepers came to the country in 2010 from Nepal, which was in the throes of an outbreak.

Part of the international force responding to a devastating earthquake, the Nepalese troops lived on a base that frequently leached waste into a river, and the water-borne disease soon infected people nearby. At least 9,200 have died over the last six years — possibly many more — and hundreds of thousands have been sickened.

Scientists long ago traced the misery to the base. But for years, the UN refused to take full responsibility and asserted absolute immunity to legal challenges on behalf of the victims.

This week, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, nearing the end of his 10-year term, offered his fullest mea culpa to date in a speech before the General Assembly that moved between Creole, French, and English.

“We apologize to the Haitian people,” he said, in English. “We simply did not do enough with regard to the cholera outbreak and spread in Haiti. We are profoundly sorry for our role.”

Ban’s statement was true enough, as far as it went; public health experts say far more could have been done to contain the outbreak early on and spare lives.

But the secretary general, hewing to the UN’s rigid legal position, still did not acknowledge the organization’s responsibility for bringing cholera to Haiti in the first place.

Philip Alston, the UN’s own special rapporteur for human rights, bashed Ban’s speech in a statement to The Guardian newspaper, calling it a “half-apology” that “entrenches a scandalous legal maneuver designed to sidestep the UN’s legal obligations.”

The UN, however insufficient its statements, does want to dedicate $400 million for redress. About $200 million, much of it already raised, would be dedicated to treating cholera and making some improvements to Haiti’s water and sanitation system.

Another $200 million, still to be raised, would go to “material assistance” to those affected by the outbreak. That could come in the form of direct aid to families of the dead or community-wide efforts, like improving education and equipping health centers.

It’s a reasonably good plan. The United States and other donor nations must make it a reality. Brian Concannon, executive director of the Boston-based Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti, put it plainly: “Words alone,” he wrote, in an e-mail to the Globe, “won’t save lives or remove the stain on the UN’s reputation.”


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