U.N. accepts role in deadly 2010 Haiti cholera outbreak

By Nick Miroff, The Washington Post

U.N. officials have acknowledged for the first time that the organization bears responsibility for the 2010 cholera outbreak in Haiti that has sickened hundreds of thousands and left some 10,000 dead.

U.N. officials have refused for years to acknowledge a role in bringing cholera to Haiti, but suspicions have long fallen on a contingent of U.N. peacekeeping troops from Nepal who arrived after the January 2010 earthquake that devastated the capital of Port-au-Prince. A cholera epidemic in Nepal was underway at the time, and raw waste from the latrines at the U.N. troops’ camp was allowed to ooze into an adjacent river.

In a statement sent to The Washington Post, Farhan Haq, a deputy spokesman for U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, said that over the past year, “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.”

The acknowledgment, first reported by The New York Times, comes after U.N. officials were provided a draft report by a U.N. adviser criticizing the organization’s handling of the outbreak.

Haq said the report, by the special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, would likely be published in late September and presented by Ban at the U.N. General Assembly in October.

The United Nations “wanted to take this opportunity to welcome this vital report,” he said.

Deadly cholera bacteria can be easily spread through water supplies, and infected patients can die quickly from severe diarrhea and dehydration. Until it struck Haiti, the disease had been mostly eliminated in the Western Hemisphere.

The 2010 cholera epidemic hit quake-battered Haiti at a particularly vulnerable moment, spreading rampantly through crowded tent camps. No one is sure how many Haitians died, but nearly six years later, the disease continues to claim new victims, particularly in rural parts of the country without access to clean drinking water. A new spike in infections has been reported this year.

Without giving details, Haq said the draft report criticizing the United Nations’ handling of the outbreak, and its recommendations, “will be a valuable contribution to the U.N. as we work towards a significantly new set of U.N. actions.”

A lawsuit filed against the United Nations and its top officials on behalf of Haitian cholera victims has been filed in the United States. U.N. officials claim the organization’s charter provides diplomatic immunity, and Haq’s statement made no mention of legal action.

Haq said the United Nations has been working to fight cholera since the outbreak but would present a new set of measures after discussions with Haitian authorities and U.N. member states.

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