For the past six years, the United Nations repeatedly denied responsibility the 2010 cholera outbreak in Haiti. The world governing body dismissed numerous independent reports that found that UN peacekeepers had brought the cholera bacterium to the Caribbean country.
Last week, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon finally admitted “moral” responsibility for the outbreak, which claimed the lives of more than 9,000 people.
“On behalf of the United Nations, I want to say very clearly: we apologise to the Haitian people,” Ban said. “We simply did not do enough with regard to the cholera outbreak and its spread in Haiti. We are profoundly sorry for our role.”
For Philip Alston, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Ban’s apology is only a “half apology”.
“The determination not to accept legal responsibility entrenches a scandalous legal maneuver designed to sidestep the UN’s legal obligations,” Alston told The Guardian (UK). “It renders a meaningful apology impossible, as is made clear by the half-apology of the secretary-general today: he apologizes that the UN has not done more to eradicate cholera, but not for causing the disease in the first place”.
It’s not the first time the Australian has criticized the UN for its denial of responsibility.
In October, Alston called the denial “a disgrace” and “morally unconscionable, legally indefensible … politically self-defeating [and] entirely unnecessary”.
The Special Rapporteur also criticized the UN’s Office of Legal Affairs (OLA) for undermining “a just solution for the victims of cholera in Haiti”.
“Exactly six years ago, United Nations peacekeepers brought cholera to Haiti for the first time in that country’s history,” he said. “For most of those six years, despite valiant and dogged efforts by civil society groups such as the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux and the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, the UN opted to abdicate its responsibility.”
In a YouTube video published last week, Stephen Lewis, the former UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, praised the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti for pressuring the UN to accept responsibility.
For the way forward, Ban urged UN member states to “do the right thing for the Haitian people and our United Nations”.
“Eliminating cholera from Haiti, and living up to our moral responsibility to those who have been most directly affected, will require the full commitment of the international community and, crucially, the resources necessary,” Ban said. “The United Nations should seize this opportunity to address a tragedy that also has damaged our reputation and global mission. That criticism will persist unless we do what is right for those affected. In short, UN action requires Member State action.”
The outgoing UN chief also launched a report, entitled, A New approach to cholera in Haiti. According to the report, the approach has two tracks:
“Track 1 involves intensifying the Organization’s support in order to reduce and ultimately end the transmission of cholera, improve access to care and treatment and address the longer-term issues of water, sanitation and health systems in Haiti. Track 2 involves developing a package that will provide material assistance and support to those Haitians most directly affected by cholera.”
Ban steps down later this month. His successor, former Portuguese prime minister António Guterres should seriously consider offering offering Haitians a genuine apology.