NEW YORK, United States, Monday August 22, 2016 – The United Nations has finally acknowledged that it played a role in an outbreak of cholera in Haiti in 2010 that has since killed about 10,000 people and continues to sicken thousands every year.
The deadly cholera epidemic began to unfold within months of the devastating 2010 earthquake. It went on to sweep through the sprawling tent cities that had become home to thousands of displaced families.
Experts traced the outbreak to a base housing UN peacekeepers sent from Nepal to assist with the recovery efforts. But for years, the UN has refused to accept responsibility for introducing the killer disease to the impoverished Caribbean nation.
An internal report seen by the New York Times is said to have led to the change of heart, but the UN still maintains that it is protected by diplomatic immunity from claims for compensation from victims’ families.
Farhan Haq, a spokesman for UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, said that “over the past year the UN has become convinced it needs to do much more regarding its own involvement in the initial outbreak and the suffering of those affected by cholera.”
— UN Spokesperson (@UN_Spokesperson) August 19, 2016
Haq nevertheless reiterated that the UN’s legal position in on diplomatic immunity and possible compensation “has not changed.”
According to the New York Times newspaper, his comments came after the confidential internal report stated that the epidemic “would not have broken out but for the actions of the United Nations.”
The Times says the report was sent to Mr Ban last week by long-time UN adviser Philip Alston, a New York University law professor, who consults the world body on human rights issues.
Now, officials are said to be considering a series of options and plan to unveil a “significantly new set of UN actions” within the next two months, according to Haq.
Haq declined to say what steps the UN is considering, but suggested that reparations were not among them.
The UN admitted it was responsible for a cholera outbreak in Haiti.
What should the UN do now?https://t.co/m5MLgiuwUx
— The Tylt (@TheTylt) August 20, 2016
While the UN stopped short of saying it caused the epidemic, its acceptance of some responsibility, was welcomed by lawyers representing Haitian cholera victims.
“This is a ground-breaking first step towards justice,” said Beatrice Lindstrom, a staff attorney at the Boston-based Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti.
“But promises will not stop cholera’s killing or compensate for the damage to poor families in Haiti. The real test is in what comes next.”
The group is among several organizations that have filed a federal class action lawsuit in New York seeking compensation for thousands of cholera victims who blame the UN for bringing the disease to their country.
It is also demanding that the UN issue a public apology and ensure that cholera is eradicated in Haiti by investing in water and sanitation infrastructure.
An appeals court is considering whether to allow the lawsuit to proceed.
Prior to the outbreak that began in October 2010, cholera had not been documented in Haiti and had been eliminated from much of the Western Hemisphere.
The bacterial disease, which is spread through contaminated food or water, can spread rapidly in areas with inadequately treated sewage and drinking water, a common problem in the wake of a natural disaster. Symptoms include diarrhoea, vomiting and dehydration.
Experts concluded that the strain circulating in Haiti could be traced to Nepal, where cholera is endemic. Evidence suggested that the disease was introduced into Haiti’s largest river through sewage from the UN peacekeeping base.
The epidemic is now estimated to have affected 780,000 people, according to figures released by the UN. At least one study has suggested that the death toll could be much higher than the official figures.