Justice

In Haiti, the UN still has to clean up its act

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A Haitian with symptoms of cholera is transported in a wheelbarrow

A Haitian with symptoms of cholera is transported in a wheelbarrow in the slums of Cite-Soleil in Port-au-Prince on November 19, 2010.

Credit:

Eduardo Munoz/Reuters

Last week, the United Nations acknowledged some responsibility for the cholera epidemic in Haiti that broke out six years ago, killing more than 9,000 people.

But the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that despite this admission the UN cannot be sued in US courts. The victims and the families of the victims have 90 days to decide whether they would like to appeal the case up to the Supreme Court, and journalist Jonathan M. Katz says that may happen.

Katz, a longtime reporter on Haiti, says cholera wasn't reported in Haiti until UN peacekeepers from Nepal arrived. (Nepal had an active cholera epidemic at the time.)

These peacekeepers stayed at a UN base “that had terrible sanitation for years,” says Katz. “And people had known about that for years.”

He says that human waste from that base entered the drinking water of the surrounding Haitian population. And after that, says Katz, cholera spread like wildfire.

But the UN had been steadfastly denying this since the first case of cholera in Haiti was reported, in fall 2010. That, says Katz, is part of the problem.

"Once you start lying about something at the beginning, once you start covering up what you’ve done, literally, I mean I watched the soldiers at that base dig up their pipes and literally cover up evidence, once you start doing that, it’s very hard to stop,” he explains. “Because then not only do you have to admit what you did in the first place, you then have to admit also, you’ve been lying about it for all these years."

Now, cholera is a problem the country will have to contend with forever.

“Once you have a strain of cholera in a country … it essentially buries deep into the ground. It can be there for years, for decades, for a very long time, sort of waiting for the right moment to strike again,” says Katz.

But it’s also containable. In fact, the worst cholera outbreaks in history came to cities such as New York, London and Hamburg.

“If you go into the soil under a place like New York City or Chicago ... you will probably find cholera there,” says Katz. “Modern public health in the Western world was invented in the 19th century to stop cholera epidemics. And one of the things that was invented was the modern sewer system. The first one installed in London was created specifically to stop people from dying of cholera.”

That’s the biggest tragedy, says Katz. It’s possible to keep people in Haiti from getting Cholera. The country just needs proper water and sanitation systems.

But despite everything that’s happened, those still don’t exist there.

Katz says that he thinks this story is really about accountability.

“There need to be mechanisms,” he says. “There need to be systems to hold powerful people, powerful countries, powerful entities, responsible for the things they do in places where people are very, very vulnerable.”

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