Human Rights Expert to U.N. Chief: It’s Not Too Late to Say Sorry to Haitians for Cholera

U.N. rights rapporteur Philip Alston says the refusal to accept legal responsibility for cholera epidemic is a "disgrace" for the U.N.

By , a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
Health personnel are disinfected November 22, 2010 in Port-au-Prince. Haitian health officials said at least 1,344 people have died from a worsening cholera epidemic that has ravaged the country since mid-October.  The capital city Port-au-Prince, seen as being particularly at risk of widespread infection because of the crowded and unsanitary conditions endured by tens of thousands of people sheltering in squalid, makeshift tent cities, has seen a total of 77 cholera deaths, officials said.   AFP PHOTO/Hector Retamal (Photo credit should read HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images)
Health personnel are disinfected November 22, 2010 in Port-au-Prince. Haitian health officials said at least 1,344 people have died from a worsening cholera epidemic that has ravaged the country since mid-October. The capital city Port-au-Prince, seen as being particularly at risk of widespread infection because of the crowded and unsanitary conditions endured by tens of thousands of people sheltering in squalid, makeshift tent cities, has seen a total of 77 cholera deaths, officials said. AFP PHOTO/Hector Retamal (Photo credit should read HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images)
Health personnel are disinfected November 22, 2010 in Port-au-Prince. Haitian health officials said at least 1,344 people have died from a worsening cholera epidemic that has ravaged the country since mid-October. The capital city Port-au-Prince, seen as being particularly at risk of widespread infection because of the crowded and unsanitary conditions endured by tens of thousands of people sheltering in squalid, makeshift tent cities, has seen a total of 77 cholera deaths, officials said. AFP PHOTO/Hector Retamal (Photo credit should read HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images)

About two months ago, the United Nations ended years of denial about the role of U.N. peacekeepers in causing Haiti's 2010 cholera epidemic, acknowledging for the first time that blue helmets had a hand in it. But the U.N. has yet to issue an apology or to accept legal responsibility for those actions, instead seeking funds from member states for a no-fault financial settlement worth up to $400 million.

That strategy came under attack Tuesday from an independent U.N. human rights expert, Philip Alston, who called the decision to skirt legal responsibility "a disgrace." In order to restore the U.N.'s reputation as the world's chief defender of human rights, he said, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon must accept full legal responsibility for the introduction of cholera into Haiti by U.N. peacekeepers and issue an unqualified apology to the Haitian people.

The remarks by Alston, an Australian lawyer who serves as the U.N. special rapporteur for extreme poverty and human rights, amounts to a stern rebuke of the U.N.'s attempts to put the Haiti scandal behind it by offering to raise hundreds of millions of dollars in additional assistance for Haitian victims.

About two months ago, the United Nations ended years of denial about the role of U.N. peacekeepers in causing Haiti’s 2010 cholera epidemic, acknowledging for the first time that blue helmets had a hand in it. But the U.N. has yet to issue an apology or to accept legal responsibility for those actions, instead seeking funds from member states for a no-fault financial settlement worth up to $400 million.

That strategy came under attack Tuesday from an independent U.N. human rights expert, Philip Alston, who called the decision to skirt legal responsibility “a disgrace.” In order to restore the U.N.’s reputation as the world’s chief defender of human rights, he said, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon must accept full legal responsibility for the introduction of cholera into Haiti by U.N. peacekeepers and issue an unqualified apology to the Haitian people.

The remarks by Alston, an Australian lawyer who serves as the U.N. special rapporteur for extreme poverty and human rights, amounts to a stern rebuke of the U.N.’s attempts to put the Haiti scandal behind it by offering to raise hundreds of millions of dollars in additional assistance for Haitian victims.

“The United Nations’ explicit and unqualified denial of anything other than moral responsibility is a disgrace,” Alston said Tuesday in a statement. “If the United Nations bluntly refuses to hold itself accountable for human rights violations, it makes a mockery of its efforts to hold governments and others to account.”

Alston also challenged concerns expressed by top U.N. officials that accepting responsibility for the outbreak would expose the U.N. to crippling financial claims in Haiti or elsewhere that could bankrupt the organization. The U.N.’s diplomatic immunity, he noted, would continue to shield it from lawsuits even if it admitted responsibility and apologized.

Alston suggested that the U.N.’s legal reasoning may have been influenced by the United States, which, as the U.N.’s largest donor to peacekeeping missions, would have shouldered the greatest financial burden for compensating victims and their families. There has long been speculation among current and former senior U.N. officials that the Obama administration pressed Ban not to claim responsibility. The United States, Alston noted, has never stated its own legal stance on whether the U.N. bears legal responsibility for causing the cholera epidemic.

In August, the United Nations for the first time acknowledged that Nepalese blue helmets participating in a U.N. peacekeeping mission introduced cholera into Haiti in 2010. Since then, cholera has killed more than 9,000 Haitians and infected nearly 800,000.

The secretary-general said the U.N. bears “moral responsibility” for the tragedy and vowed to provide additional “material assistance and support” to Haitians affected by it.

The U.N. is seeking to persuade member states to cough up $400 million, half of which would be used to tackle Haiti’s ongoing cholera epidemic by upgrading its emergency response capacity and its sanitation system. The other half would go to those most affected by the epidemic, including victims and their families, or to fund projects in their communities.

The new U.N. policy, Alston wrote, is “novel and very welcome” but “remains critically incomplete. There is not yet an apology or an acceptance of responsibility.”

Photo credit: HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images

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

More from Foreign Policy

A propaganda poster from the 1960s shows Chinese leader Mao Zedong.
A propaganda poster from the 1960s shows Chinese leader Mao Zedong.

Xi’s Great Leap Backward

Beijing is running out of recipes for its looming jobs crisis—and reviving Mao-era policies.

A textile worker at the Maxport factory in Hanoi on Sept. 21, 2021.
A textile worker at the Maxport factory in Hanoi on Sept. 21, 2021.

Companies Are Fleeing China for Friendlier Shores

“Friendshoring” is the new trend as geopolitics bites.

German children stand atop building rubble in Berlin in 1948.
German children stand atop building rubble in Berlin in 1948.

Why Superpower Crises Are a Good Thing

A new era of tensions will focus minds and break logjams, as Cold War history shows.

Vacationers sit on a beach in Greece.
Vacationers sit on a beach in Greece.

The Mediterranean as We Know It Is Vanishing

From Saint-Tropez to Amalfi, the region’s most attractive tourist destinations are also its most vulnerable.