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Debate Continues Over U.N. Role In Bringing Cholera To Haiti

Haitians protest in front of a U.N. office on Oct. 15, 2015, demanding reparations for families of people who suffered or died from cholera. The outbreak started in 2010, claiming some 9,000 lives.
Hector Retamal
AFP/Getty Images
Haitians protest in front of a U.N. office on Oct. 15, 2015, demanding reparations for families of people who suffered or died from cholera. The outbreak started in 2010, claiming some 9,000 lives.

For the first time the United Nations is signaling it may be on the verge of admitting that its peacekeepers introduced cholera into Haiti in 2010. Over the last 6 years that outbreak has claimed sickened nearly a million Haitians and claimed more than 9,000 lives.

Critics of the agency say that the U.N.'s failure to take responsibility for the outbreak has been a public relations nightmare and an insult to the people of Haiti.

The outbreak began in October of 2010. At that time, cholera hadn't been reported in Haiti in more than 100 years.

Several investigations including by the U.N. itself have linked the outbreak to sewage from a base for Nepalese peacekeepers, who were part of an ongoing mission. The troops had recently arrived in Haiti. Witnesses reported seeing overflowing toilets at the base spilling waste into a local stream. The strain of cholera that erupted in Haiti was very similar to a strain of the bacteria circulating at the time in Nepal.

Cholera causes intense vomiting and diarrhea. The patient loses so much fluid so quickly that the disease can prove fatal in a matter of days.

The disease spreads when feces from an infected person contaminates drinking water. Once cholera got a foothold in Haiti, it ran rampant in the country's open sewers and untreated water supplies.

For years Haitians have been blaming the U.N. for this outbreak, even spraying painting "UN=Kolera" on the walls of the peacekeeping base. The U.N. has denied responsibility.

The U.N.'s refusal to accept responsibility for sparking the outbreak led to violent protests in the streets of Port au Prince in 2010 and stoked distrust between Haitians and the troops that are supposed to be helping them.

Now a spokesman for U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon says the U.N. may be about to shift its position. Speaking to reporters at a press briefing from U.N. headquarters in New York on Thursday, Farhan Haq said the U.N. "needs to do much more regarding its own involvement in the initial outbreak."

"What we are doing is trying to see how this can be resolved," Haq told reporters. "How to resolve this. How to do the right thing. And that is something that remains under discussion."

He said a new plan for handling this question should be disclosed in the next 2 months.

Dr. Louise Ivers, senior health and policy adviser with Partners in Health, says the U.N. should have acknowledged its role in introducing cholera in to Haiti years ago. PIH has treated many of the hundreds of thousands of cholera patients at its clinics across the country.

"It's been a long time coming," she says. "It's about time that they accept responsibility."

Brian Concannon, a human rights lawyer with the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, brought a class action suit in 2013 against the U.N. on behalf of Haitians who became sick or lost loved ones in the outbreak. He welcomes the new statements from the U.N. Secretary General's office but says the organization still "clearly did not definitively take responsibility for introducing cholera."

Concannon says the U.N.'s position has been an "affront to [the] dignity" of Haitians: "This big organization that has been tasked by the world to promote human rights and accountability and the rule of law has been denying something that was so clearly undeniable. It's really a slap in the face for the U.N. to lie about something when everyone in Haiti knew the U.N. was lying. And everybody in Haiti knew that the U.N. knew that everybody knew it was lying."

The U.N. countered Concannon's class action lawsuit by saying it is immune under international law from such legal actions.

Today, spokesman Farhan Haq said despite the organization revisiting its role in the initial outbreak, the U.N.'s legal view on the organization's immunity has not changed.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: August 21, 2016 at 10:00 PM MDT
A previous Web version of this story incorrectly spelled Dr. Louise Ivers' first name as Louis.
Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.