Magazine article Policy Options

The UN Made Them Sick

Magazine article Policy Options

The UN Made Them Sick

Article excerpt

From Peacekeeping without Accountability: The United Nations' Responsibility for the Haitian Cholera Epidemic ( news/17237.htm) July 2013

In October 2010, only months after the country was devastated by a massive earthquake, Haiti was afflicted with another human tragedy: the outbreak of a cholera epidemic, now the largest in the world, which has killed over 8,000 people, sickened more than 600,000, and promises new infections for a decade or more. Tragically, the cholera outbreak - the first in modern Haitian history - was caused by United Nations peacekeeping troops who inadvertently carried the disease from Nepal to the Haitian town of Méyè.

In October 2010, the U.N. deployed peacekeeping troops from Nepal to join MINUSTAH in Haiti. The U.N. stationed these troops at an outpost near Méyè, approximately 40 kilometers northeast of Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince. The Méyè base was just a few meters from a tributary of the Artibonite River, the largest river in Haiti and one of the country's main sources of water for drinking, cooking, and bathing. Peacekeepers from Nepal, where cholera is endemic, arrived in Haiti shortly after a major outbreak of the disease occurred in their home country. Sanitation infrastructure at their base in Méyè was haphazardly constructed, and as a result, sewage from the base contaminated the nearby tributary. Less than a month after the arrival of the U.N. troops from Nepal, the Haitian Ministry of Public Health reported the first cases of cholera just downstream from the MINUSTAH camp.

Cholera spread as Haitians drank contaminated water and ate contaminated food; the country's already weak and over-burdened sanitary system only exacerbated transmission of the disease among Haitians. In less than two weeks after the initial cases were reported, cholera had already spread throughout central Haiti. During the first 30 days of the epidemic, nearly 2,000 people died. By early November 2010, health officials recorded over 7,000 cases of infection. By July 2011, cholera was infecting one new person per minute, and the total number of Haitians infected with cholera surpassed the combined infected population of the rest of the world. The epidemic continued to ravage the country throughout 2012, worsened by Hurricane Sandy's heavy rains and flooding in October 2012. In the spring of 2013, with the coming of the rainy season, Haiti has once more seen a spike in new infections.

Haitian and international non-governmental organizations have called on the U.N. to accept responsibility for causing the outbreak, but to date the U.N. has refused to do so. In November 2011, Haitian and U.S. human rights organizations filed a complaint with the U.N. on behalf of over 5,000 victims of the epidemic, alleging that the U.N. was responsible for the outbreak and demanding reparations for victims. The U.N. did not respond for over a year, and in February 2013, invoking the Convention on Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations, summarily dismissed the victims' claims. Relying on its organizational immunity from suit, the U.N. refused to address the merits of the complaint or the factual question of how the epidemic started...

This report provides the first comprehensive analysis of not only the origins of the cholera outbreak in Haiti, but also the U.N.'s legal and humanitarian obligations in light of the outbreak and the steps the U.N. must take to remediate this ongoing humanitarian disaster. This analysis has concluded the following:

1) The cholera epidemic in Haiti is directly traceable to MINUSTAH peacekeepers and the inadequate waste infrastructure at their base in Méyè.

2) The U.N.'s refusal to establish a claims commission for the victims of the epidemic violates its contractual obligation to Haiti under international law.

3) By introducing cholera into Haiti and denying any form of remedy to victims of the epidemic, the U.N. has failed to uphold its duties under international human rights law. …

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