UN chief Ban apologises to Haitian people over cholera epidemic

The UN chief formally presented a 'new approach' to help the families of the cholera victims and support the battle against the disease in Haiti. ― Reuters pic
The UN chief formally presented a 'new approach' to help the families of the cholera victims and support the battle against the disease in Haiti. ― Reuters pic

NEW YORK, Dec 2 ― UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon yesterday apologised for the first time to the people of Haiti for the role played by the world body’s peacekeepers in sparking a devastating cholera epidemic in the country.

“On behalf of the United Nations, I want to say very clearly we apologise to the Haitian people,” he said three times ― in Haitian Creole, French and English ― to the UN General Assembly.

“We simply did not do enough with regards to the cholera outbreak and its spread in Haiti,” Ban said. “We are profoundly sorry for our role.”

According to numerous independent experts, cholera was introduced to Haiti by infected Nepalese UN peacekeepers sent to the Caribbean country after the massive 2010 earthquake.

Cholera, a disease that is transmitted through contaminated drinking water and causes acute diarrhoea, is a major challenge in a country with poor sanitary conditions.

The cholera epidemic has claimed more than 9,000 lives in Haiti, the most impoverished country in the Americas, and infected 800,000 people.

The United Nations reiterated its rejection of claims that it is also legally responsible for the damages from the health emergency.

“We do not change our basic legal position,” UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson told reporters.

Ban insisted the UN has “a moral responsibility to act.”

“This has cast a shadow upon the relationship between the United Nations and the people of Haiti,” he said. “It is a blemish on the reputation of UN peacekeeping.”

A ‘new approach’

The UN chief also formally presented the 193-nation General Assembly with a “new approach,” a two-pronged programme to help the families of the cholera victims and support the battle against the disease.

The UN hopes the new proposal will raise US$400 million (RM1.78 billion) over two years, but funding for prior UN assistance to Haiti has been slow to arrive.

Ban urged donors to finance the program. “On the scale of global humanitarian and development needs, limited sums are required to eliminate cholera in Haiti,” he pleaded.  

“This mission is realistic and doable. Cholera is a treatable and preventable disease. It can be controlled and eliminated.”

Since the outbreak of cholera in Haiti and the ensuing accusations against the UN peacekeepers, the United Nations has steadfastly argued its missions enjoy diplomatic immunity from prosecution.

That immunity has been upheld by US courts in rejecting several lawsuits filed by victims seeking millions of dollars in damages for negligence.

To lift that immunity would jeopardise UN peacekeeping operations, Eliasson said.

“This is a true apology,” he said, adding that Ban “wanted to do it before the end of his term” on December 31.

Philip Alston, UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, said in an October report to the General Assembly that the UN’s position “flouted the applicable international law” and “undermined the credibility of the organisation.”

In August, the UN recognised for the first time that it brought cholera to Haiti and had a “moral responsibility” toward the victims, promising material aid.

Two programmes

Ban confirmed yesterday that two programmes were planned, each costing US$200 million.

One will strengthen the fight against the epidemic, which resurged after Hurricane Matthew devastated the country in early October, and improve the country’s sanitary infrastructure.

Some 72 per cent of Haitians have no toilets at home and 42 per cent still lack access to drinking water, the UN says.

The other programme includes measures to prioritise aid to cholera victims and their families. It would support locally led projects, such as health care, micro-lending and education financing.

The UN plans to directly disburse money for each person who died of cholera. But it is difficult to count and identify all the direct victims of the disease due to the country’s weak statistics.

“The community approach is the preferred option,” said Eliasson. “Individual payment is difficult.”

The UN has already raised US$18 million for the fight against the disease and US$132 million for sanitation improvement.

But for direct aid to victims, the donations have been much less forthcoming and the modalities of that programme remain unclear. ― AFP

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