The United Nations Secretary-General has announced a new approach to cholera in Haiti. Six years after the organisation introduced cholera into the country, with at least 9,200 people dead and 800,000 people sickened since that time, the UN has, at long last, apologised.
It has also taken a major stride by agreeing the need for remedies to be made – both to communities and individual people.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon switched into Creole, Haiti’s national language, to apologise for what happened and to ask forgiveness from Haitian victims. For many years the UN denied its role in the outbreak and epidemic, refusing to accept any type of responsibility for the suffering that resulted from the disease.
In 2010 the UN sent additional peacekeepers to its mission in Haiti to assist with rebuilding the country after an earthquake. And some of those peacekeepers brought cholera with them. The UN did not screen its peacekeepers for cholera, nor did it build adequate toilet facilities in its peacekeeping camps. As a result, raw faecal waste carrying cholera flowed directly into a tributary that feeds Haiti’s main river. Cholera quickly spread around many parts of the country.
Initially the UN refused to acknowledge any of this. Even when confronted with scientific proof of how and why the outbreak occurred, it continued to refuse to accept responsibility. The UN response to cholera was woefully inadequate, and very simple efforts could have prevented the disease for relatively small sums of money.
Representatives of the victims launched a long fight for justice. What makes the apology so important is that throughout the battle to secure accountability, the UN battened down its hatches. It refused to engage in any discussions about compensating victims, despite the grave harms suffered.
But this is not the end of the story. The question remains as to who will fund compensation for the victims. The new plan for cholera includes two tracks: one to support the prevention and eradication of cholera, the other for the material compensation of victims and for the support of community-based projects. The aim is to get US$200m for each track. The Secretary-General has appealed to member states for donations but many are suffering from donor fatigue – particularly when it comes to Haiti.
The recent appeal for donations to assist with rebuilding after Hurricane Matthew has not met its target, with the pot of money required woefully underfunded.
Some may argue that, since the UN caused the outbreak, it should provide the funds itself. But the United Nations is a group of member states. The organisation may have a Secretariat (of tens of thousands of staff) to support, but it is funded, directed, and driven by its member states. And when the UN causes harm – in this case by deficient policies and practices – the responsibility for remedying that harm must be assumed by all of its members.
There is a simple solution here. The UN has a regularly assessed budget to which all countries contribute according to their different abilities. The funds for remedying cholera victims’ suffering caused by the UN could, and arguably should, come from that budget. In that way, all UN members would contribute to addressing the consequences of the UN’s actions.
But of course there are some countries that do not want the budget to be used in this way. Even though there is a reserve account into which spare money is placed – when there is an underspend on a project – some countries are railing against the idea of collective responsibility for an organisation to which they belong as a member. And those same countries do not want the UN peacekeeping underspend (of nearly US$300m) to be used to compensate to Haiti cholera victims. Those states prefer to have an appeal for donations from countries that feel an affinity with, or responsibility towards, Haiti and the cholera victims.
This position simply is not good enough. Cholera in Haiti is the responsibility of the entire United Nations. As Ban Ki-Moon stressed, it is a stain on the reputation of the entire UN. The outbreak and suffering have harmed the legitimacy and credibility of UN peace operations.
The apology represents huge progress. Now we must push for the final obstacle to be overcome, and for the UN to match its words with actions by using UN funds to compensate cholera victims.