Cholera outbreak strikes Haiti

Editor's note: The death toll in the Haiti cholera outbreak had reached 142 with more than 1,500 infected by Friday morning. Aid groups are rushing in medicine and supplies to try to contain the cholera epidemic.

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — An outbreak of cholera has sickened dozens of Hatians, health officials here said, and raised fears that the disease could make its way through languishing refugee camps. It's a potential new disaster for a country still reeling from the massive earthquake that struck its capital almost one year ago.

The outbreak could be another failure on a growing list that has many here, and elsewhere in the world, wondering if the United Nations and its secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, are fulfilling its humanitarian role.

On one recent day here, in front of a garbage-littered, shanty-lined alleyway, a convoy of U.N. jeeps came to a stop. Sixteen military peacekeepers in camouflaged fatigues, flak jackets, blue helmets and armed with automatic rifles, stepped into the hundred-degree heat and began to walk.

Every two hours, day and night, this battalion of Brazilian nationals conducts foot patrols in Cite Soleil, the slum in Port-Au-Prince victimized for years by violence between armed gangs and a dismal lack of basic services. The battalion is part of MINUSTAH (United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti), which has been trying to maintain security in the city since 2004.

Given how the troops saunter through the streets, this patrol might seem routine. Not so for their boss, Ban Ki-moon. His fate, and the status of the global organization he heads, is inextricably tied to the future of Cite Soleil and other earthquake-stricken neighborhoods of Port-Au-Prince.

For the United Nations, Haiti is personal. And so far, it's not going well.

When the Jan. 12 eartquake took 300,000 lives, it also claimed MINUSTAH’s head of operations and 100 other U.N. personnel. On the 38th floor of the Secretariat building in New York City, the disaster quickly became one of the biggest tests of Ban's leadership since his election four years ago.

Despite the scale of tragedy, some analysts have likened Ban’s response to that of President George W. Bush’s response to Hurricane Katrina: slow, underwhelming and off-message. The secretary general did not address the U.N. press corps until 14 hours after the quake hit. When he did, he seemed tone-deaf, saying the total death toll could “may well be in the hundreds.”

After the quake, Ban visited the country only twice — the last time was seven months ago. A report by Refugees International said that 70 percent of Haiti’s camps for people displaced by the disaster remain unmanaged, in part because of faults within the U.N.’s local organizational system. Refugees International cited complaints that the relief efforts were “disconnected from the reality outside of the U.N. compound.”

For Ban, Haiti may become yet another reason why the media and his detractors call him “Nowhere Man.” Since he began his term as secretary general in 2007, he has been perceived as uncharismatic, ineffective and unwilling to reform the organization he runs.

Most recently, Ban’s office inspired controversy for a U.N. report alleging genocide by Rwandan military forces against ethnic Hutus between 1993 and 2003. An initial draft of the report was leaked to Le Monde last month. In comparison, the final version appeared to be toned down. Ban denied that a deal existed to “save face for any troop-contributing nations” — such as those supporting U.N. security initiatives in Africa. But analysts say the report is deeply flawed.

The Rwanda report was not the first time in Ban’s tenure that the United Nations has been perceived as compromising its stance on a conflict. During the last months of Sri Lanka’s civil war between the Tamil Tigers and Sri Lanka, the United Nations was suspected of withholding information about the true number of civilians killed or injured.

The secretary general has even garnered criticism on issues that are reportedly close to his heart, such as global warming. Ban touted the December 2009 Copenhagen climate conference as the possible “turning point in the world’s efforts to prevent runaway climate change.” But it was widely panned as a fiasco. Some called it a “historic failure.”

Some of Ban’s fiercest critics have come from the U.N.’s own staff and from the diplomatic community. In August 2009, Mona Juul, a high-ranking Norwegian diplomat, referred to Ban as “spineless” and “charmless” in a leaked memo, and gave a litany of issues that she believed the secretary general had failed to influence, from the cyclone in Myanmar to non-proliferation.

“In other ‘crises areas’ such as Darfur, Somalia, Pakistan, Zimbabwe and not least the Congo, the secretary general's appeals, often irresolute and lacking in dedication, seem to fall on deaf ears,” Juul wrote.

Stinging as Juul’s remarks were, the worst came a year later when yet another memo was leaked, authored by Under Secretary General of the Office of Internal Oversight Services Inga-Britt Ahlenius. In her “end-of-assignment” report to Ban, Ahlenius called the secretary general’s actions “deplorable” and “reprehensible,” and said that the secretariat “now is in a process of decay.”

In Ban's defense, acting deputy spokesperson for Ban, Farhan Haq, told GlobalPost that in regards to issues such as climate change and the Sri Lankan civil war, “it would be hard to find any leader in the world who has pushed harder on these issues than Ban Ki-moon.”

Criticisms of the U.N’s performance in Haiti after the quake, said Haq, are false.

“As for the compound, the main U.N. compound in Haiti was itself destroyed in the earthquake. The United Nations is hardly disconnected from the reality faced by Haitians, having itself lost 101 staff.”

Ban told the Guardian newspaper in July that he welcomes criticism but finds some of it unjust. "Sometimes I have found some of such criticism has been based on misunderstanding or not fully appreciating what kind of person I am and what my job requires me to do," he said.

The question now is whether the man thought to have had the least influential tenure in the secretariat’s history will be given a second term next year. So far, speculation is that he will, based on the support of China and the United States, despite some rumored grumbling about his performance in Washington.

“The U.S. wanted an Asian who would be the complete opposite of Kofi Annan,” wrote Stanley Meisler, author of a biography of Kofi Annan, in an email to GlobalPost. “No one on the council put up much of a fight against this idea. So it's pretty hard to carp now that they have a [secretary general] who is the complete opposite of Kofi.”

Read more GlobalPost coverage of Haiti.

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