Haiti PM: UN Has “Moral Responsibility” to Address Cholera Epidemic

September 12, 2013

Haitian Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe, on a trip to Europe to ensure continued donor support, was asked by France 24’s Marc Perelman about the ongoing cholera epidemic and U.N. responsibility. Perelman notes that “all the scientific evidence up to date points to the U.N.” but questioned Lamothe as to why the Haitian government has “never pushed for a public apology.” Lamothe stressed that the government has tried to address the issue through “direct dialogue” with the U.N., but also noted that the U.N. has an obvious “moral responsibility” to address the epidemic.

The U.N., in addition to not issuing an apology, has never accepted responsibility for the deadly epidemic that has killed over 8,260 and sickened over 675,000 in the last three years. A U.N.-backed cholera elimination plan has been unable to raise the required funds to adequately address the issue, despite Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s assurance in late 2012 that he would “use every opportunity” to raise the necessary funds. A high-level donor meeting to raise funds for the plan, scheduled for early October in Washington, has now been postponed until 2014. It had been expected that Mr. Ban, as well as World Bank president Jim Yong Kim, would attend. The plan, which requires some $450 million over its first two years, remains less than half funded.

In the meantime, cholera continues to ravage the country as the response capabilities of national actors diminish. In a bulletin earlier this week, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) noted that “resources for cholera response, including funding and staff, have been in steady decline since 2012.” OCHA concludes by stating that “if this trend continues, it would be virtually impossible to effectively and efficiently respond to the epidemic in the event of sudden outbreaks.” The lack of adequate resources also means that detailed data on where cholera outbreaks are occurring and how many are dying is becoming harder and harder to come by. The actual toll of this imported disease could be much higher than the official numbers indicate.

In late August, members of the U.N. Security Council and countries contributing to MINUSTAH met to discuss the extension of the mission’s mandate. Not a single country (PDF) raised the issue of U.N. responsibility for cholera, though many praised the Secretary General’s efforts to eliminate it. MINUSTAH’s proposed budget for 2013/2014 is $576,619,000, more than enough to fully fund the cholera elimination plan over its first two years.

In light of continued U.N. denials of responsibility, the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti and the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux continue to seek legal redress on behalf of over 6,000 cholera victims. An earlier claim brought to the U.N. was dismissed as “not receivable” in February. A recent Al Jazeera Fault Lines documentary by Sebastian Walker takes a detailed look at the evolution of the epidemic, its impact on rural communities and the responsibility of the U.N. In it, Walker interviews Deputy Spokesperson for the Secretary General Eduardo Del Buey. After Del Buey reads, verbatim, the U.N. press release from February, Walker pressures him to explain the decision:

            Walker: That statement was very brief.

Del Buey: It’s a brief statement, it’s a legal statement and that’s about all we’re going to say on that.

Walker: But why is the claim not receivable?

Del Buey: Well, it’s not the United Nations practice to discuss in public the details of our responses to claims against the organization.

Walker: So you don’t have to explain yourselves?

Del Buey: No.

Walker: You are saying that not only do they not get compensation but you don’t even have to explain why?

Del Buey: Well, that’s exactly what I said, that’s the United Nations’ policy.

Walker: What would you say to a family member in Haiti who has had somebody die as a result of this disease?

Del Buey: Well, I would basically say…as a U.N. employee or as a human being?

Walker: Both?

Del Buey: As both. I would simply say, sorry about your loss, I’m really sorry that the cholera happened, we don’t exactly know what the origins are but we’re working as hard as we can to address the issue.

Walker: Everyone knows what the origins were. The scientific community is united…

Del Buey: Our panel told us that it was due to a confluence of circumstances…

Walker: Including being brought to Haiti, most likely, by U.N. peacekeepers.

            Del Buey: Well, that’s not what it said.*

The original report produced by the U.N.-appointed panel of experts did blame a “confluence of factors”, but also found that the disease was introduced “as a result of human activity” and that the sanitation conditions at the U.N. base very near to where the outbreak started “were not sufficient to prevent fecal contamination” of the nearby river. In March of 2013, the same panel (though no longer affiliated with the U.N.) issued a new report, based on all the additional scientific evidence, concluding that the U.N. was the “most likely source of introduction of cholera into Haiti.”

*Unofficial transcript.

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