Four years ago, the first Haitian was infected with cholera, but justice for the families of the deceased and the sickened remains elusive.
The United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti — known by its French acronym MINUSTAH — is accused of bringing the disease to Haiti, where the current death toll stands at nearly 9,000. Yet the U.N. has been able to avoid any legal repercussions because of its legal immunity and their effort to eradicate the disease leaves a lot to be desired.
In October 2010, Associated Press journalist Jonathan Katz discovered toxic sludge seeping from the U.N.’s base of Nepalese peacekeepers — as detailed in his book The Big Truck That Went By, a chronicle of the year following the devastating earthquake. When the strain of cholera infecting Haitians was tested, it matched the same strain currently endemic in Nepal. Cholera, it can be concluded, was brought to Haiti by the United Nations’s peacekeeping mission.
In November 2011, the Boston-based Institute for Democracy and Justice in Haiti (IDJH) filed a claim against the U.N. on behalf of 5,000 Haitians; the claim demanded that the U.N. install a national water and sanitation system that would control the epidemic, compensate individual victims of cholera for their losses and issue a public apology from for the organization’s wrongful acts. In response, the U.N. — with support from the United States — claimed immunity and refused to accept responsibility for the outbreak.
On a tour through Haiti in July 2014, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon expressed concern for the Haitian people, acknowledging that the victims and the families of the deceased were angry and fearful over the cholera outbreak. Ban took a step in the right direction by admitting that the U.N. has a moral obligation to help the people of Haiti, but those are just words.
It’s not unusual for the United Nations to intervene in a country being plagued by a deadly epidemic — even ones the organization isn’t accused of bringing. West Africa is currently suffering a catastrophic Ebola outbreak; more than 4,500 people in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia have died, and the U.N. response is massive. Yet in Haiti, the United Nations can barely raise the funds required to truly make a difference in the fight against cholera.
So, why has the response to Ebola been so rapid when the U.N. won’t even take responsibility for the outbreak, much less commit to any true progress on eradication?
“Because of the difference in the threat to powerful countries,” says Jonathan Katz. “Ebola is still a pretty novel disease. There’s no easy cure, and no one knows what will happen if it spreads.”
“It’s also got the general public in powerful countries terrified and will affect the way they travel and buy things,” Katz adds. “With cholera, on the other hand, the developed world has about two hundred years of experience. They knew it might kill a lot of people in Haiti, but were confident it posed little threat to them.”
The U.N. commitment to fighting Ebola in West Africa is important and honorable. But when will Haitians receive the same treatment? The $2.2 billion dollar plan put forward by the U.N. to eradicate the disease continues to be severely underfunded. The combination of an underfunded eradication project, the lack of political will from powerful countries and the U.N.’s legal immunity has left the cholera victims with waning hope.
Still, the lawyers who filed the first claim have never stopped seeking justice. After much legal back-and-forth and dismissals, the Haitian cholera victims finally saw their day in court. Though the hearing did not provide any dramatic changes and the status quo appears to remain intact, it provided a glimmer of hope in what has at times seemed like a hopeless situation.