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

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

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