More than a dozen United Nations independent rights experts are slamming the world agency on its response to the cholera epidemic in Haiti that has left more than 10,000 dead and over 800,000 infected after being introduced by U.N. peacekeepers shortly after Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake.
The group, which includes outgoing U.N. Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights Philip Alston, says the U.N.’s response and failure to compensate victims has fallen short. They are calling on U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres to urgently step up efforts to fulfill a U.N. pledge to help victims.
“The hope had been that S-G Guterres would have taken seriously the demands that the U.N. actually admit that it was responsible for bringing cholera, but he has systematically avoided addressing that crucial issue in any way,” Alston told the Miami Herald. “It seems that he is content for the U.N. to have no formal recourse procedure in place when these sorts of disasters are provoked by U.N. actors, and that seems to be a very dangerous policy when the U.N. is under attack from so many directions.”
The importance of relief for Haiti’s cholera victims, the group of 14 experts told Guterres in a letter, is even more urgent in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, which could deal a double blow to them and their families.
Stéphane Dujarric, spokesman for the secretary-general, said they are reviewing the concerns raised in the letter and will be responding in due course. Since the international community has invested more than $705 million to fight cholera in Haiti and support the government’s national plan, he said.
Investments made in Haiti’s health, epidemiological, water and sanitation systems to combat the disease are now playing a key role in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic,” Dujarric said. “The United Nations’ joint efforts with the Government of Haiti, and intensive engagement with urban and rural communities to quickly track, test and treat cases of cholera have always had the additional goal of building resilience and a stronger community health system.“
The experts have also written to the Haitian government asking why it has done nothing to promote the cause of the victims and why it has not made use of its legal right to challenge the U.N. in the International Court of Justice.
“For several years, I sought an invitation from the government so that these and other matters could be discussed,” said Alston, who in a 2016 report to the U.N. General Assembly called on the U.N. to accept its legal responsibility for the outbreak and provide appropriate remedies.
Alston said COVID-19, which is caused by the novel coronavirus, has brought much greater awareness of what it means to lose 10,000 people in an epidemic.
“At a time when some countries are expressing outrage and demanding accountability in relation to what appears to be a natural mutation, it is useful to recall the fact that not one of those countries said or did anything to hold the U.N. to account when the facts are indisputable and its responsibility unquestionable,” Alston said.
With COVID-19 and the adoption of similar measures as in cholera prevention, many have indeed been reminded of the waterborne disease that struck Haiti 10 months after the earthquake, when Nepalese peacekeepers contaminated a major river.
And just as COVID-19 has come to highlight Haiti’s weak health system and vulnerability, so too did cholera, which mostly sickens and kills those without access to clean water and sanitation.
During the cholera outbreak, the government and aid organizations strongly emphasized hand washing and no hand shaking, even as the U.N. refused to accept blame for its role. Cholera treatment centers went up around the country and then-Haitian President René Préval even took to the airwaves to show Haitians how to make a lifesaving remedy to keep themselves hydrated should they become infected. Though Préval’s instruction was criticized by some in the private sector who thought it was unbecoming of a president, many in the population, who lacked access to a health center, welcomed it.