Just months after the colossal January 2010 earthquake devastated Haiti, the country was stricken by another human catastrophe that would come to claim the lives of over 8,000 people: the outbreak of a cholera epidemic.
After years of investigation and controversial suspicions, a new Yale study is holding the United Nations accountable for what was the first cholera outbreak in Haiti in over 100 year, and what has become the largest in the epidemic world.
“Peacekeeping Without Accountability” reports that over 600,000 people fell ill UN peacekeeping troops inadvertently carried the disease from Nepal, where cholera is endemic, to the Haitian town of Méyè.
The UN deployed the Nepalese troops in October 2010 to join MINUSTAH—the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti.
The troops were stationed near Méyè, not far from a tributary that flows into the Artibonite River—the largest river in Haiti and one of the country’s main sources of water for drinking, cooking, bathing and washing clothing. With 90 percent of Haitians having no access to running water, the Artibonite is a significant life-preserving resource for many who visit the river daily.
As a result of poor construction at the peacekeepers’ base untreated sewage leaked, contaminating the tributary and essentially poisoning the river. The Haitian Ministry of Public Health reported the first case of cholera less than a month after the arrival of the UN troops from Nepal.
Prior to the finding of any confirmed evidence against the UN, a 2012 documentary called “Baseball in the Time of Cholera” followed a young Haitian boy, Joseph Alvyns, who loved baseball and lost his mother to cholera.
Mario Joseph, the head lawyer in a lawsuit brought against the United Nations said in the documentary that the country has seen tuberculosis and malaria, but never cholera—adding that it is “evident” that it came with the UN mission.
“The UN have their own protocol on how to respect the environmental rights of any country they send their peacekeepers to,” he said, standing beside a man who had lost his father to the sickness. “But why didn’t they detect it—the cholera on the Nepalese soldiers? Why didn’t they treat the waste? They need to say, ‘it’s my fault. Let’s help the Haitian government to eradicate the cholera.’ But they continue to deny and the disease continues to spread around the country.”
Until now, as Joseph points out, the United Nations has denied responsibility for the outbreak, repeatedly their blanket immunity from claims arising from its peacekeepers’ actions. The UN has refused to pay compensation to any of the victims, claiming that it is immune under a 1946 convention.
Even where there was a possibility to take moral responsibility, representatives have simply said that it “was not possible to be conclusive on how cholera entered Haiti.”
The UN continued to deny fault when presented with Yale’s findings.
This is not the first time UN peacekeeping missions have gone amiss, but Brian Concannon of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti hopes this time the UN will be held accountable.
“We’re hoping that this is the case that’s too big to fail,” he said in the documentary. “The evidence against the UN is so overwhelming here that it will have no choice but to finally take responsibility for its malfeasance here.”
The Yale study, released last week, determined the UN has violated its contractual obligation to Haiti under international law by introducing cholera to its population, denying “any form of remedy to victims of the epidemic,” and failing “to uphold its duties under international human rights law,” by not accepting responsibility and providing adequate humanitarian aid.
The report demands the establishment of a claims commission, a public apology to Haiti, support for victims and funding for the prevention and treatment of cholera.