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Haiti Have the UN to Thank for Their Cholera Epidemic

But the UN have rid themselves of any responsibility, which is pretty cool, right?

by Ben Makuch
28 March 2013, 1:00pm


Photo courtesy of Doctors Without Borders.

Recent years haven't been the strongest for UN peacekeeping missions. In fact, there's been no shortage of high profile attempts to bring peace to war-torn areas that have ended in abject failure – for example, the inability to quell the horrific Rwandan genocide that claimed at least 800,000 lives, the aborted interference in Somalia that produced the infamous Battle of Mogadishu and the ongoing futile intervention in the Democratic Republic of Congo being just a few.

The thing about all those examples, however, is that while the UN involvement didn't do much to help, it also didn't inadvertently end up causing a deadly cholera epidemic – something I'd assume you'd try to stay clear of if you were supposed to be there to help. That, sadly, is exactly what's happened in Haiti, after Nepalese peacekeepers participating in a mandated UN mission in 2010 allegedly defecated and urinated into the Artibonite River from their base in Mirabelais, while their latrines seeped raw sewage into the tributary hapless Haitians drank from.  

Since then, the disease has claimed close to 8,000 lives, infected over 640,000 people and shows no sign of slowing down. In fact, the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti projected that 1,000 people will die a year until the disease is eradicated. Although the Nepalese first denied the allegation, it became pretty tough to refute when lab results concluded the Haitian cholera strain to be a form typically found in South Asia. Not to mention that, prior to the 2010 outbreak, there hadn’t been a single reported case of the infectious disease in Haiti in 100 years.

In case you thought the UN couldn’t mess this one up any more, it then did the honourable thing and claimed legal immunity for the fiasco, ridding it of any responsibility to compensate a growing list of victims. The UN is boldly citing article 29 of the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations, which extends legal immunity to any UN worker operating in an official capacity.

That denial, issued by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon in late February, really caps off a sterling ten years for the UN Stabilisation Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), which has had troops accused of crimes as far ranging as rape and impregnating underage girls, to child prostitution, killing civilians and failing to stop a prison massacre. So while the UN hovers apathetically above the law, other organisations have had to fly to Haiti to fight the cholera epidemic – most notably Doctors Without Borders (MSF).


A map of the UN presence in Haiti (click to enlarge).

“The UN launched an appeal last December, 2012 to raise more than two billion dollars to fund the ten-year plan to eliminate cholera,” says Duncan McLean, the MSF Programme Manager for Haiti, in an emailed statement. “Focused on preventive measures in water and sanitation as well as vaccination, this initiative seems to consider cholera as a development issue to be solved by 2022 and spreads a reassuring message describing a situation under control, when it’s clearly not.”

The UN plan is just that: a plan, and one that relies on the cushion of a nebulous ten-year initiative that’s not yet funded. Meanwhile, many current cholera patients are dying and have no access to adequate treatment.

According to McLean, the situation isn’t improving fast enough. In a country where 80 percent of the population lives on less than £1.30 a day, it’s not hard to imagine the abysmal shape that public medical facilities might be in; under-equipped, no strong enforcement of basic hygiene precautions and many cases where hospital staff haven't been paid for months. As for the cholera treatment, McLean says it's sometimes just two nurses treating 50 patients.

“If diplomatic immunity protects the United Nations at the legal level, there remains a moral responsibility to fund medical care for the victims, prevention measures and the long-term elimination of the disease,” added McLean.


Earthquake damage in Port Au Prince, photo by Marco Dormino.

The UN’s behaviour is par for the course in a country where western entities have recently been sniffing around for whatever riches the troubled nation can offer. Back in 2012, mining companies swarmed Haiti’s northern provinces in an apparent gold-rush, just as the government (propped-up on foreign aid) promoted Haiti as open for business. As the typical "developing-country-exploited-by-west" narrative usually goes, there have already been allegations of bribery of native politicians by western entities in return for Haitian resources.

In a speech given in November 2012, Julian Fantino – leader of the now defunct Canadian federal aid agency CIDA (it was controversially scrapped last week) – suggested humanitarian aid groups should partner with mining and extraction companies to achieve development objectives. Critics noticed that disturbing trend as a politicisation of aid money in Haiti, which advances commercial interests in an already vulnerable country – especially when Canadian extractive companies, like Montreal-based St Genevieve Resources, are already major players there.

As for the current UN mission, which began in response to the fall of President Aristide in 2004 (that some allege was orchestrated by Canada and other nations), it’s been a nightmare episode in foreign intervention.

“A few years prior to my arrival [in Haiti], UN staffers in Juba, South Sudan were accused of sexually molesting local children, but no charges were laid, nor did any meaningful investigation occur to my knowledge,” said a soldier from a Nato country with UN experience in Haiti. He wished to remain anonymous because he isn’t authorised to speak with the media.


Photo courtesy of Doctors Without Borders.

“To say that this creates considerable conflict between the local population and the organisation […] is a bit of an understatement.”

Alleged crimes aside, the real issue facing the mission in Haiti and other similar UN deployments, according to the soldier, is a serious disparity in quality between militaries who supply troops as peacekeepers. Given the fact many contributing nations are developing countries lacking modern training or equipment for soldiers, you can expect they that won’t uphold the same military standards of say, Britain or Australia, countries with defence budgets running into billions of pounds.

The soldier maintains that it’s partially the reason developed countries stay away from peacekeeping missions: there’s operational inefficiencies and a fear of media when those inferior armies they’re grouped with make potentially toxic mistakes.

“The USA is never going to allow its officers and troops to be under the command of someone who could have very well bought his commission, or share the same camp with a military that has been infiltrated by the Russian mob,” he says.

“They know deep down that if something newsworthy happens, they are going to wear the blame.”


Photo courtesy of Doctors Without Borders.

While speaking of the Nepalese contingent, the soldier said he encountered two of their officers, both Sandhurst trained, who were in his words, “consummate professionals”. He didn’t notice anything that would exhibit the feats since attributed to Nepalese peacekeepers, but did say that when a nation like Nepal deploys a battalion-sized group to a foreign territory, they should be doing their due diligence, which apparently is supposed to include extensive health examinations of every soldier.

With the troublesome UN mission still ongoing, the upcoming rainy season is sure to promise Haitians more death, hurricanes, and a spike in cholera. And if there's one legally certain thing we can all take away from this, it's that none of it is the UN’s fault.

Follow Ben on Twitter: @BMakuch

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