Haiti and United Nations Accountability: The Cholera Epidemic

Haiti and United Nations Accountability: The Cholera Epidemic

Michiyo Tanabe and Lee Jay Walker

Modern Tokyo Times


The United Nations (UN) and international meddling in several nations often ends up with peculiar results and this most notably applies to Afghanistan and Haiti. Yet, while Afghanistan was caught up in the Cold War politics of yesterday and faced with the modern reality of ongoing intrigues by Pakistan; Haiti falls into the worse case scenario of abject failure based on incompetence. This can be viewed most clearly by the cholera epidemic in Haiti based on shortsightedness to say the least. However, the behavior of the UN in protecting itself from lawsuits over the deaths of over 8,000 Haitians is extremely galling because it is saying that this institution is above the law.

Between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, seven cholera pandemics spread to various nations. However, Haiti had always avoided all these pandemics prior to the current seventh pandemic hitting this nation after the involvement of the UN. The current seventh pandemic became known in 1961 because a new strain of cholera emerged in Indonesia and then spread to many nations in Asia. In time the new strain was named El Tor and it is this strain that was carried by the UN to Haiti that is responsible for the deaths of over 8,000 Haitians.

In 2010 it became clear that a cholera outbreak had erupted in the region of Artibonite in Haiti. Obviously, the populace became alarmed because cholera was unheard of in this nation. Initially, the main focus was on the unavailability of untainted water and the devastation of the sewage system after the devastating 2010 earthquake. The seriousness of the situation was raised by the senior health official of Haiti in the same year because Gabriel Thimote said the crisis was “no longer a simple emergency, it’s now a matter of national security.”

Irrespective if the earthquake had made conditions even worse in Haiti, it was equally clear that poverty, drinking water issues and the sewage system were in a dire situation prior to the devastating earthquake. The one strong connection was the Artibonite River because most individuals hit by cholera in the early period drank water from this river. However, unlike the UN, local Haitians knew full well that this river had not created cholera outbreaks in the past. Yet, now in Haiti you had a military UN base that was utilizing the Artibonite River therefore local emphasis was put on Nepalese peacekeepers.

Initially, the UN appeared to be covering up many realities related to this base but this only led to greater suspicion. Yet according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention the tests clearly showed that Haitians were hit by the Vibrio cholera serogroup O1, serotype Ogawa. Once this information became known then clearly this strain emanated from South Asia in relation to the strain found in Haitians. Despite this, some UN officials shamelessly stressed that an investigation was not needed. In other words, the deaths and sickness of so many Haitians were not deemed important enough.

Gregory Hartl, World Health Organization spokesperson, is on record for making it clear that the findings of how the outbreak hit Haiti was “not important.” Other voices were implying the same but in time other individuals with high connections raised their voices. John Mekalanos, an expert in the field of cholera, said the “novel, virulent strain previously unknown in the Western Hemisphere and health officials need to know how it spreads.”

Despite suspicions that Nepalese UN troops were responsible for the cholera outbreak the nation of Nepal was equally in denial. However, after intense pressure was put on the UN to hold a complete investigation that was neutral then the UN relented. In 2011, the conclusion of the panel was that Nepalese troops had brought the cholera outbreak to Haiti therefore vindicating what local Haitians had said from the start. Sadly, “a fudge” was issued at the end of the report like a UN smokescreen stating that “a confluence of circumstances” were behind the outbreak in Haiti – despite acknowledging that Nepalese troops had brought the strain to this nation.

The New York Times in 2012 reports: “In telling the truth, the U.N. could have gained the trust of the population and facilitated the fight against cholera,” said Dr. Renaud Piarroux, who led an early investigation into the outbreak. “But that was bungled.”

Ironically, or tragically, the river held responsible was far from the epicenter of the earthquake. By the middle of 2013 over 8,200 Haitians had perished and vast numbers of people had been hospitalized. However, despite the severity of the crisis and the link with cholera-infected human waste emanating from Nepalese UN soldiers – the UN deems itself to be immune from legal action. In other words, the UN brought cholera to Haiti but doesn’t want to be held accountable for the deaths of so many Haitians. Thereby, the UN appears to be treating the people of Haiti with disdain. In other words, resources spent on trying to contain the crisis, is aimed at absolving the UN.

Dr. Piarroux and other colleagues categorically conclude that: “…the onset of cholera in Haiti was not due to climatic factors and was not the direct consequence of the January 2010 earthquake. All of the scientific evidence shows that cholera was brought by a contingent of soldiers traveling from a country experiencing a cholera epidemic. Understanding what triggered the epidemic is important for preventing future occurrences, and acknowledges the right of Haitians to understand the events that lead to their cholera devastation.”

In 2014, the UN was still sticking to being immune from any lawsuits based on the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations and in 2015 many serious issues are still being negated. This lacks insincerity towards the people of Haiti because obviously the cholera crisis in this nation is based on UN involvement – even if this was obviously unintended. Yet, for the UN to refuse to take accountability is galling for Haitians because it seems like the people of Haiti are being deemed to be second-class.

CNN reports: The claims are that the U.N. engaged in reckless and gross negligence and misconduct bringing cholera to Haiti,” said Ira Kurzban, a lawyer and board member with the Boston-based Institute for Justice and Development in Haiti. The group is demanding financial compensation for the 8,300 Haitians who died as a result of the cholera epidemic as well as some 650,000 more survivors of the illness.”

Of course, many UN workers have done admirable work in Haiti despite the shortcomings of people at the top. Yet, the behavior of the UN in its attitude from the start of the cholera crisis – to the present day whereby this institution is claiming immunity from lawsuits, is sullied by this reality. Therefore, it is time for the UN to come clean and face its own shortcomings by assisting families that have suffered so many losses based on the actions of this international institution. After all, the thousands of graves don’t lie nor do the facts behind the incompetence of the UN and its subsequent refusal to accept responsibility.




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This article by Modern Tokyo Times is being republished because of the need to keep this issue in the limelight because of the severity of the crisis.

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