With an Eye on South Korea’s Presidency, Ban Ki-moon Seeks to Burnish his U.N. Legacy
The outgoing U.N. secretary-general touts his support for climate change and gay rights, regrets failures from Haiti to North Korea, and calls Syrian President Bashar al-Assad a liar.
The Haiti cholera epidemic continues to leave a cloud over Ban’s legacy. In October 2011, cholera-infected waste from the U.N.’s Mirebalais peacekeeping camp leaked into the Meille River, a tributary of the large Artibonite River, triggering an epidemic that still confounds Haitians.
In November 2011, lawyers representing 5,000 Haitian victims filed a petition for relief with the United Nations. It demanded a formal apology, compensation for the victims, and a commitment to install a water and sanitation system capable of controlling the epidemic. The U.N. refused to negotiate a settlement with the lawyers on the grounds that its forces possessed diplomatic immunity from any claims.
A “veil of secrecy” has long hung over the U.N.’s legal decision to deny responsibility for the epidemic, a former U.N. lawyer said. It has fueled conflicting theories about Ban’s role in the decision.
Several diplomats and officials close to the issue said the U.N.’s top lawyer, Patricia O’Brien, and the heads of the departments of U.N. peacekeeping and field support, Hervé Ladsous and Susana Malcorra, initially prepared a memo indicating that the U.N. had an obligation to engage in discussions with the plaintiffs. According to this account, U.N. officials say Ban rejected the advice after consulting with the United States.
But other officials said the strongest resistance came from O’Brien, and indirectly from the United States, which would have to foot nearly 30 percent of the bill for any payout of compensation.
The message from senior U.S. officials in New York to their U.N. counterparts was “basically, you guys created this problem, you sort it out,” said one former senior U.N. official. “Don’t ask the U.S. administration to go to Congress and ask for $5 billion to clean up this mistake.”
In the FP interview, Ban largely evaded questions about his role in refusing to extend compensation to cholera victims, or to disclose the advice he received from the United States and other big powers who feared the cost could reach into the tens of billions of dollars. The U.N. lawyers, he said, were very “strict” about not admitting responsibility for the crisis in the face of “legal attacks” by lawyers seeking billions in legal claims for Haitian cholera victims.
“We were very much defensive on this matter, it’s true,” he said.
O’Brien, who is now Ireland’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, denied a request for comment. But her judgment that the U.N. had no obligation to compensate victims proved controversial even within the legal department. Mona Khalil, a U.N. lawyer at the time, registered her opposition to the legal opinion, citing unspecified “political interference,” according to the letter of resignation she tendered earlier this year.
Khalil wrote that she had “explicitly reserved” her position on the legal judgment arising from the cholera epidemic in Haiti, while understanding “full well my duty to defer to the decisions of the leadership.”
In the end, Philip Alston welcomed Ban’s apology as an “important step in the right direction,” according to a Dec. 1 statement. But he said Ban’s refusal to accept legal responsibility for introducing cholera into Haiti means that any compensation would amount to charity. “As a result, there remains a good chance that little or no money will be raised.”
Bruce Rashkow, the former U.S. and U.N. legal advisor, also faulted the U.N. for stonewalling for so many years, and refusing for more than six years to acknowledge its responsibility.
“Apologies are cheap. It’s the right thing to do, but it doesn’t take away the blemish on his legacy,” Rashkow said. “In fact, it reinforces the blemish.”
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