The peacekeepers lived on a base that often leaked waste into a river, and the first cholera cases in the country appeared
The mea culpa, which Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon delivered before the General Assembly, avoided any mention of who brought cholera to Haiti, even though the disease was not present in the country until U.N. peacekeepers arrived from Nepal, where an outbreak was underway.
The peacekeepers lived on a base that often leaked waste into a river, and the first cholera cases in the country appeared in Haitians who lived nearby. Numerous scientists have long argued that the base was the source of the outbreak, but for years U.N. officials refused to accept responsibility.
Even though Ban’s office has acknowledged that the U.N. had played a role in the outbreak, his apology on Thursday was limited to how the world body responded to the outbreak, not how it started.
“We simply did not do enough with regard to the cholera outbreak and its spread in Haiti,” Ban said on Thursday. “We are profoundly sorry about our role.”
Apologies are rare for the U.N. In 1999, Ban’s predecessor, Kofi Annan, expressed “deep remorse” for the organization’s failure to protect civilians from the genocide in Rwanda five years earlier.
Ban’s apology — belated in the view of his critics — is part of his push for redress in Haiti before the end of his 10-year tenure on Dec. 31. Yet the people of Haiti have seen few tangible benefits so far.
The U.N. has not yet met its promise to eradicate cholera once and for all from Haiti, though Ban’s aides said Thursday that they were close to raising the $200 million they say they need to fix Haiti’s water and sanitation system and treat Haitians for cholera. Nor has the U.N. yet raised an additional $200 million it wants for “material assistance” to families and communities that have suffered; donor nations have not yet come forward with the funds.
“It is aimed at providing a meaningful — but necessarily imperfect — response to the impact of cholera on individuals, families and communities,” Ban said in a report made public Thursday.
Ban goaded countries to make “voluntary contributions,” or else other means would have to be pursued, which can be interpreted only to be compulsory dues. “Eliminating cholera from Haiti, and living up to our moral responsibility to those who have been most directly affected, will require the full commitment of the international community and, crucially, the resources necessary,” he said.
The Haitian ambassador to the U.N., Denis Regis, welcomed Ban’s acknowledgment of the organization’s role in the cholera outbreak, calling its previous position “morally unjustifiable.”
Few things have damaged the standing of the U.N. — and Ban’s record as its secretary-general — as the cholera outbreak and particularly, his response to it.
In a country where few people have access to clean water and proper sanitation, the disease quickly spread in 2010 when U.N. peacekeepers failed to adequately follow protocols for disposing wastewater while deployed in Haiti. Cholera surged again in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew, which hit the nation in October.
One of the reasons the disease spread so widely, public health experts have said, is because it was allowed to. Had there been a vigorous response in the first couple of years, it would have been far easier to contain, and fewer people would have died. The death toll stands at an estimated 10,000; some say it could be higher.
In the report issued Thursday, Ban blamed perennial underfunding for cholera eradication.
“Efforts were beset from the start by the challenge of insufficient funding, which has had a dramatic negative impact on the capacity to respond effectively to the disease,” he said.
Perhaps most damaging to the United Nations, which regularly presses governments around the world to pursue accountability, Ban and his aides have all along claimed immunity from prosecution under a long-standing diplomatic treaty. That view was upheld in August by a federal court in Manhattan, in response to a class-action lawsuit by cholera victims.
In recent months, Ban has expressed “moral responsibility” for the outbreak and “deep regret.” Senior U.N. officials said they had been constrained from saying any more by their lawyers, who were concerned that it would make them vulnerable to further legal claims elsewhere over misconduct or mistakes of its peacekeepers.
Ban made the apology in English, French and Haitian Creole. It was delicately worded to avoid the impression that the U.N. was taking full responsibility for cholera in Haiti. That could imply legal culpability.
The group that represents the victims, the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, has said it has not yet decided on whether to take the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court to seek compensation.
Brian Concannon, the executive director of the group, called Ban’s proposals a step in the right direction. “But words alone won’t save lives or remove the stain on the U.N.'s reputation,” he said in an email. “The U.N. and its member states will have to rise to the challenge and actually fund and effectively execute the projects.”
Ban’s aides have said they would prefer to use the material assistance funds to aid communities most affected by the cholera outbreak — by giving children of survivors a free education, for instance — rather than open up a fund for individual claims for compensation.
Whatever they use it for, they need the money first. Of the estimated $200 million, only $500,000 has so far been pledged.