UN sued for role in cholera outbreak in Haiti

Blog by Matt Barr

In a New York court yesterday a compensation claim against the UN was brought on behalf of the victims of the 2010 cholera outbreak in Haiti, the origins of which have been traced back to the organisation. More than 8,000 people have been killed with over 650,000 becoming ill as a result of the on-going outbreak of a disease that was previously only rarely experienced in Haiti despite numerous outbreaks in the region.

As noted in a previous Peace News blog piece, a number of scientific studies have shown that the cholera strain was likely brought into the country by Nepalese UN troops and spread after a river was contaminated with human waste from their barracks. Despite this, whilst professing his “profound sympathy for the terrible suffering caused by the cholera epidemic”, in February the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, dismissed such compensation claims citing the organisation’s immunities privileges.

One such study was entitled ‘Peacekeeping without Accountability’, a Yale University report published in August that provided a comprehensive analysis of the cause of the cholera outbreak the conclusion of which was in line with previous scientific investigations, stating that its research “overwhelming demonstrates” the origin was from the UN. As a consequence of these findings the report stressed that the organisation should be required to remedy as best as is possible the outbreak’s consequences and prevent its further spread.

Whilst Ban Ki-moon launched a $2.2 billion initiative in December 2012 to eradicate cholera over the next decade in Haiti, given its role in bringing the disease to the country and the massive cost to maintain MINUSTAH, the UN itself is only contributing the relatively small amount of $23.5 million to the program.

Although the outbreak occurred in October 2010 the cholera issue cannot simply been viewed as a historic event, an aftershock of the earthquake, as three years later it is still an entrenched killer in Haiti. Signalling the on-going nature of the epidemic, in February Dr Louise Ivers of Partners in Health noted that the disease had become resurgent at that point: “Our clinic in St. Marc treated more people with the infection last month than in the previous eight months combined.” Being a waterborne disease, the country then saw “a steady rise” in new cholera infections during the rainy season but since its end the numbers have levelled off and decreased from 5,155 new cases in July to 3,858 during the first three weeks of August.

The Nepalese UN troops to which the outbreak has been linked were in Haiti as part of a UN peacekeeping mission, known by the acronym MINUSTAH, that has been in the country since early 2004 following the overthrow of the democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. As previously reported in some depth here on the Peace News blog, MINUSTAH itself has never been far from controversy in Haiti, including incidences of child rape, and wikileaked documents have shown that it has become a politicalised tool for American interests in the country at the expense of Haitians.

Seen in context, the cholera outbreak is just one of many tragedies that have befallen Haiti as a consequence of the arrival of UN troops and adds further weight to arguments about ending the UN occupation.

As the New York Times has reported, it is “far from clear” as to whether the “lawsuit would be accepted by the court” as the UN is afforded “broad latitude” in diplomatic protections against such litigations.

The following articles about Haiti have previously appeared on the Peace News blog:

Haiti: A History in Shadow, 1 January 2013

The Historical Roots of Haiti's Unnatural Disaster, 13 January 2013

UN ‘overwhelmingly’ linked to cholera epidemic in Haiti, 10 August 2013

The short documentary, Baseball in the time of Cholera, from the perspective of one young Haitian is a beautiful film and is available to watch here (YouTube) and here (Vimeo). The trailer is available here.

Topics: Haiti