By Ancito Etienne
I was in my first year of high school in Haiti when I learned about the United Nations. I remember reading all 30 articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Each one gave me great hope, especially the right to health (Article 25) and the right to life (Article 3). The apparent moral authority of the organization and its aspirations instantly inspired me.
But what I did not know then was that the same organization that had inspired me would later bring a disease to my country that would kill my grandfather, sicken my relatives, infect over 800,000 of my fellow Haitians and kill nearly 10,000 of them. Worse, I never expected the U.N. to be unconcerned about its moral failure and not to live up to promises of reparations it made to survivors and victims.
U.N. forces first arrived in Haiti in 2004 to restore peace – a failed mission, in my view, during the 15 years they were in the country. Among those forces were U.N. “peacekeepers” from Nepal, where a cholera outbreak had been reported in the capital city, Kathmandu. They brought the deadly infectious disease to Haiti, where they stayed in a military base near the Artibonite River.
Waste from the base was often illegally discharged into the Artibonite, even though the peacekeepers knew farmers used the river to irrigate their fields and that residents along its banks used it as their primary water source. [In Haiti, close to half of the population does not have access to potable water, especially in rural Haiti.]
Due to this gross negligence, on Oct. 14, 2010, the first case of cholera was detected near the Artibonite and signaled the beginning of one of the worst outbreaks in history – just nine months after Haiti had suffered from a deadly earthquake that killed hundreds of thousands of Haitians and displaced millions.
My grandfather contracted the disease on Dec. 4, 2010, fewer than two months after the first reported case. He was living in rural Haiti, where health care was inaccessible. By the time the news reached my family in Port-au-Prince, we knew it was already too late. The brave man I looked up to growing up – a pillar of his community – had succumbed to a sickness foreign to his body. He died three days later, on Dec. 7.
Not too long after, my uncles, aunts and cousins contracted the disease. They all suffered horribly, but thankfully, they all survived.
As the cholera outbreak wreaked havoc in the country, national and international human rights groups joined hands to demand an immediate U.N. response and justice for the victims. But even against this public outcry, the U.N. refused to be held accountable for its mistakes. This refusal to admit legal and moral responsibility was heavily influenced by the United States, according to Andrew Gilmour, Former U.N. Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights.
Finally in 2016, to save face after six years of deliberate denial of the issue, including dismissal of a petition by 5,000 cholera victims for redress, the U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon finally admitted the U.N.’s “role” in the cholera outbreak in the country, and not for causing it. He also announced a $400 million package to respond to the crisis. But more than four years later, only 5% of the $400 million commitment has been fundraised. This is simply a disgrace. For all the victims and survivors, justice has still not been served.
The U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes health as a human right and also states that “everyone has the right to life.” This means that by neglecting to take preventive measures to protect the people of Haiti and failing to compensate the survivors and victims, who were mainly poor and vulnerable people, the U.N. has failed to uphold the moral authority it claims. This moral failure is the highest form of hypocrisy.
This October marks 10 years since the beginning of the cholera outbreak. My grandfather and relatives, the hundreds of thousands of Haitians infected, and the thousands killed by the U.N. should never have fallen ill and deserve to be healthy and alive today. But since the past cannot be undone, the least the U.N. can do is respect the victims and honor the memory of those who died by delivering on its $400 million response package now.
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