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Haiti's silent cholera epidemic

Haiti's silent cholera epidemic

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APTOPIX Haiti Cholera Lawsuit

Young boys look for fish in a basin of polluted water in Delmas, a neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Friday.

The Ebola epidemic killed 11,300 people in West Africa, creating a panic last year in the United States and Europe.

Ebola may not be eradicated, but the World Health Organization announced in February transmission had ceased.

Meanwhile, an epidemic in Haiti has failed to make any headlines despite taking more than 10,000 lives since fall 2010 and causing another 800,000 to become acutely ill without an end in sight.

Unlike Ebola or the Zika virus, it is not some mysterious and rare tropical disease.

It is a cholera catastrophe — the unintended byproduct of a U.N. peacekeeping mission gone terribly awry, followed by years of denial of responsibility and relative inaction by U.N. officials.

In January 2010, a 7.0 earthquake struck Haiti in the Caribbean. As many as 316,000 people perished, and 1.5 million were left homeless. The world responded with $13.3 billion in aid, including $4 billion from the U.S. government.

In mid-October 2010, the U.N. brought in 454 peacekeepers from Nepal, which was in the midst of a cholera outbreak. They were housed at a base where their waste leaked into the feces-infested Meille River. Residents nearby became violently ill, with dehydration caused by severe diarrhea or vomiting. They began dying in droves.

At the behest of the Haitian government, which became concerned about an epidemic, Doctors Without Borders researchers found deaths had increased threefold, “suggesting a substantially higher cholera mortality rate than previously reported.”

Evidence regarding the role of the peacekeepers became irrefutable, but the U.N. resisted lawsuits seeking reparations, claiming absolute immunity, and did little to improve sanitary conditions.

That may change, although not soon enough for the Haitians.

Earlier this month, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon received a special report by New York University law professor Philip Alston, who advises the organization on human rights issues, blaming the U.N. for the epidemic.

Alston wrote it “would not have broken out but for the actions of the United Nations,” that its Haitian cholera policy “is morally unconscionable, legally indefensible and politically self-defeating” and “entirely unnecessary.”

Alston scolded the U.N., stating its refusal to provide reparations “upholds a double standard according to which the U.N. insists that member states respect human rights while rejecting any such responsibility for itself.”

He added, “It provides highly combustible fuel for those who claim that U.N. peacekeeping operations trample on the rights of those being protected, and it undermines both the U.N.’s overall credibility and the integrity of the Office of the Secretary-General.”

The U.N. ignored a similar 2014 report from Gustavo Gallon, a special envoy for human rights in Haiti, who criticized it for failing to take responsibility for how the disease had spread. He wanted the U.N. “to enable damages to be recorded, corresponding benefits or compensation to be paid, the persons responsible to be identified, the epidemic to be stopped and other measures to be implemented.”

The New York Times has reported infection rates have been rising every year since 2014. No sanitary systems in Haiti have been built. Two experimental wastewater-processing plants were closed because funds were lacking.

The U.N. estimates $2.27 billion is needed to eradicate the disease, but it has raised only $38 million from member nations for water purification tablets. Less than two-thirds of Haiti’s population has access to clean water.

Three class-action lawsuits brought by 5,000 Haitian families are pending in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York. The families are seeking $40 billion — more than five times the U.N. peacekeeping budget.

“The figure of $40 billion should stand as a warning of the consequences that could follow if national courts become convinced that the abdication policy is not just unconscionable but also legally unjustified,” Alston wrote. “The best way to avoid that happening is for the United Nations to offer an appropriate remedy.”

Following Alston’s report, the U.N. may take action.

Farhan Haq, deputy spokesman for the secretary general, told the New York Times, “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.”

Its response, he said, may be up for discussion in two months.

While the diplomats dither, an estimated 600,000 Haitians will be at risk of coming down with cholera during the rainy season, November through March. The U.N. needs to pick up the pace.

Relocating the opening of the U.N. General Assembly in September from New York City to the banks of the Meille River would enable the delegates to see firsthand what the U.N. has wrought and most assuredly would hasten an immediate and compassionate response.


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