For the first time in five years, the United Nations has admitted what epidemiologists, human-rights researchers, and the UN’s own experts established long ago: that its peacekeepers were responsible for the inadvertent introduction of cholera into Haiti in 2010, causing the deaths of over 10,000 people and sickening hundreds of thousands more.
After years of denials and dissembling, and choosing to hide behind the cloak of immunity rather than face the legitimate demands of a grieving Haitian people, the UN now says it is willing to take steps to redress the problem. The challenge now is to develop, fund, and administer a meaningful compensation scheme that values Haitian lives, respects the principles of institutional accountability and the right to a remedy, and repairs the self-inflicted damage done to the integrity of the United Nations as a defender of human rights. Such a response holds the potential not only to deliver a measure of justice to the Haitian people, but to establish an important precedent of accountability for the United Nations and other international governmental organizations.
Cholera erupted in Haiti in October of 2010, less than a month after the arrival of UN peacekeepers from Nepal, which had just endured a major outbreak of the disease. The peacekeepers arrived at a UN outpost near Méyè, 40 kilometers northeast of Port-au-Prince, and were stationed at a base just a few meters away from a tributary to the Artibonite River, Haiti’s largest river and one of its main sources of water for drinking, cooking, and bathing.
As United Nations investigators would later establish, sanitation facilities at the base were haphazardly constructed, and as a result, human waste emptied into the tributary. Within days of the arrival of the peacekeepers, Haitian health officials confirmed numerous cases of cholera in the area surrounding the base, the first cases of cholera in the country in over a century. The disease spread rapidly throughout the country, with devastating effect.
Although world-renowned epidemiologists have independently agreed that the outbreak was traceable to a specific cholera strain of South Asian origin found in Nepal, the United Nations has resisted the scientific evidence of their responsibility at every turn. This was not because of a difference of scientific opinion, but because of a fear of liability and a hope that the Haitian people’s demands for justice could be defeated through obfuscation and delay. Time and again, the United Nations pointed to Haiti’s poor water and sanitation infrastructure as the source of the problem—not so subtly suggesting that the Haitian people had brought cholera on themselves.
Haitian victims and their advocates have called upon the United Nations to establish a claims commission for compensation since 2010, as the UN peacekeeper’s own status of forces agreement with Haiti requires it to do. But the organization has steadfastly refused, and when it was sued in federal court in New York by Haitian victims represented by the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, it claimed immunity from the suit.