This week UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon officially acknowledged responsibility for the 2010 cholera outbreak in Haiti, which has caused approximately 10,000 fatalities in the past six years, and infected hundreds of thousands more.
The outbreak began in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in January 2010, and it has long been believed that the disease was imported by UN peacekeeping troops.
The acknowledgement became public after The New York Times obtained draft language of a confidential 19-page report, stating that the outbreak “would not have broken out but for the actions of the United Nations.” Although the secretary general’s statement marks the first time that the UN has officially acknowledged any responsibility, reporters and academics have posited the link for years. One of these reporters was Pulitzer Center grantee Sonia Shah, who reported on the outbreak in an October 2014 interactive feature, “Mapping Cholera: A Tale of Two Cities.”
In this project, Shah compared the situation in Haiti to another devastating cholera outbreak nearly two centuries earlier— Manhattan in the summer of 1832. These two outbreaks shared many environmental preconditions—warm water, urban crowding, poor sanitation and raw sewage. The vibrio cholerae bacteria that causes cholera usually infects people who drink contaminated water. If left untreated, cholera can kill up to 50 percent of those infected.
After the 2010 earthquake, a group of Nepalese troops arrived in Haiti from Kathmandu, site of a recent cholera outbreak. These soldiers—sent by the UN for a six-month peacekeeping rotation—set up camp above Haiti’s biggest river, the Artibonite. According to locals interviewed by Shah, the camp had inadequate waste treatment facilities, and untreated sewage flowed from the camp into Haitian waterways. Almost immediately, Haitians who regularly used river water began coming down with the disease.
With its temperate climate and infrastructure—including waste treatment facilities—decimated by the earthquake, Haiti provided ideal conditions for the bacteria to thrive, and the disease spread quickly. Within a month, cholera had exploded in the capital city of Port-au-Prince “like a bomb,” according to Ivan Gayton, an emergency coordinator for Medecins Sans Frontieres.
In July 2012, Boston University Pulitzer Center student fellows Meghan Dhaliwal and Jason Hayes traveled to Haiti to document the outbreak—now an endemic problem—and the efforts of human rights lawyers to achieve justice for the victims.
Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the world and without sufficient water and sanitation infrastructure, the country was uniquely vulnerable. Prior to the arrival of UN peacekeepers, Haiti had not seen a cholera outbreak in decades. In 2011, human rights lawyers filed a suit against the United Nations seeking reparations and support in stopping the outbreak and treating those infected.
“In many ways, cholera is more a justice issue than a medical issue,” Brian Corcoran, director of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, told Dhaliwal. “You don’t get cholera unless you’re poor.”
In an email quoted in The New York Times, Farhan Haq, deputy spokesman for the secretary general, stated that “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.”
However this statement still falls short of a full acceptance of responsibility: when challenged by victims in the U.S. court system, the United Nations has claimed diplomatic immunity. On Thursday, Haq reiterated that the UN’s legal position in claiming diplomatic immunity “has not changed.”
“This is a major victory for the thousands of Haitians who have been marching for justice, writing to the UN and bringing the UN to court,” Mario Joseph, a Haitian human rights attorney representing cholera victims, told The Associated Press about the secretary general’s acknowledgement. “It is high time for the UN to make this right and prove to the world that “human rights for all” means for Haitians too,” he said.