The Cable

U.N. Mulls Compensation for Victims of Haiti’s Cholera Epidemic

After years of denial, the U.N. now acknowledges it bears ‘moral responsibility’ for introducing the deadly disease into Haiti.

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI - NOVEMBER 21: A person suffering from symptoms of cholera is carted to the Doctors Without Borders (MSF) cholera treatment center in the slum neighborhood of Cite Soleil on November 21, 2010 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.  Haiti continues to deal with a cholera epidemic that has killed more than 1,100 with thousands more sick. Doctors say it is caused by poor sanitary conditions that make the bacteria easy to transmit through contaminated water or food.  (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI - NOVEMBER 21: A person suffering from symptoms of cholera is carted to the Doctors Without Borders (MSF) cholera treatment center in the slum neighborhood of Cite Soleil on November 21, 2010 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Haiti continues to deal with a cholera epidemic that has killed more than 1,100 with thousands more sick. Doctors say it is caused by poor sanitary conditions that make the bacteria easy to transmit through contaminated water or food. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

For the past six years, the United Nations has repeatedly claimed there is no irrefutable evidence that U.N. peacekeepers introduced cholera into Haiti six years ago, dismissing mounting claims by scientists to the contrary. The U.N. has successfully fended off a class action suit in a U.S. federal court on behalf of Haitian victims seeking financial redress.

But in a reversal, the U.N. this week acknowledged it did play a role in starting a deadly epidemic that has cost more than 10,000 lives since 2010 and continues to sicken Haitians. On Friday, a U.N. spokesman said for the first time that the organization is mulling offering some form of compensation to victims of the disease that has sullied the reputation of the international organization and of the Nepalese peacekeepers who are believed to have introduced the disease into Haiti.

A top U.N. spokesman, Farhan Haq, told reporters at a press conference on Friday that U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is working closely with U.N. member states to “develop a package that would provide material support to those families most directly affected by cholera.” Haq said the details of an arrangement are still being worked out with certain important states, and he would not say whether such support would come in the form of cash payments to thousands of cholera survivors and to the families of victims who have succumbed to the disease.

“The Secretary General deeply regrets the terrible suffering the people of Haiti have endured as a result of the cholera epidemic,” Haq told reporters at U.N. headquarters. “The United Nations has a moral responsibility to the victims of the cholera epidemic and for supporting Haiti in overcoming the epidemic and building sound water, sanitation, and health systems.”

The move comes two days after the U.N. acknowledged for the first time that its Nobel Peace Prize winning blue helmets brought cholera to Haiti. In email remarks to the New York Times, Haq said that the U.N. “has become convinced that it needs to do much more regarding its own involvement in the initial outbreak and the suffering of those affected by cholera.”

In Friday’s remarks, Haq stopped short of acknowledging U.N.’s direct responsibility for introducing cholera in Haiti. But he made it clear that U.N. member states would have to share the burden of funding an international response. Haq said that previous efforts to fund efforts to improve Haiti’s sanitation and health care have been “seriously underfunded, and severe and persistent funding shortfalls remain.”

Cholera made its first appearance in nearly a century in Haiti in October, 2010, and it has since killed more than 10,000 people. A panel of scientists established by Ban concluded that the disease was introduced into the Haitian population by human activity in the Meye tributary, a branch of the Artibonite River, and quickly spread throughout the river delta, infecting thousands of Haitians along the way.

Nepalese peacekeepers were stationed at a camp in Mierbalais, along the banks of the Meye, fueling suspicion that the waste of an infected peacekeeper had flowed into the river. At the time, the panel said it could not attribute responsibility to one individual or group. But he scientific consensus in support of the case for U.N. culpability have been growing. And some members of the original U.N. panel have subsequently been convinced that the peacekeepers did bring cholera to Haiti. Scientific studies have confirmed that Haiti’s cholera outbreak can be traced back to a single event after the 2010 earthquake.

Thousands of Haitian victims last year filed a class action suit against the United Nations in the U.S. Southern District federal court. A federal appeals court judge, Jose Cabranes, on Thursday upheld a claim by the U.N. that it has diplomatic immunity from a lawsuit on U.S soil. Lawyers representing the Haitian plaintiffs have 90 days to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Photo Credit: JOE RAEDLE/Getty Images

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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