More than 150 Haitian-American organizations and prominent personalities including Haitian-American author Edwidge Danticat and Illinois State Senator Kwame Raoul have signed a letter urging U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Secretary of State John Kerry to clear the path for justice for Haiti’s cholera victims.
The U.S. government has actively argued for United Nations immunity in a lawsuit to compensate victims of the deadly cholera outbreak in Haiti, and in January a U.S. district judge dismissed one of several suits filed by human rights groups and victims on the basis that the U.N. had not waived the broad immunity it enjoys under its charter.
Endorsed by diaspora organizations and political, religious and other community leaders across the United States, the letter calls on the United States to support compensation. It also calls for support for the implantation of water and sanitation infrastructure in poverty-stricken Haiti where 8,964 people have been killed and another 744,147 sickened by cholera in nearly five years.
Human rights advocates say the Haitian government data show that the number of recorded cases has tripled in the first quarter of 2015, compared to the same quarter of 2014.
“The U.N., like all of us, must be held accountable for their actions, and work to correct the horror this outbreak has caused in Haiti,” said New York State Legislator Carrier Solages, one of several current and former elected officials who signed the letter.
“Specifically, the UN must install the water and sanitation infrastructure necessary to control cholera and compensate the victims of this epidemic for their significant physical, emotional and financial burdens due to cholera,” Solages argued.
A waterborne disease, cholera made its debut in Haiti 10 months after the country’s devastating Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake. And while scientific studies have shown that it was likely introduced in Haiti by UN peacekeepers from Nepal, where the disease is endemic, the world body has refused to accept responsibility.
In a July 2014 interview with the Miami Herald, Ban, the secretary general, did, however, acknowledge that the U.N. bears “a moral responsibility,” to help Haiti get rid of the disease. The statement came on the eve of a visit to Haiti, and a year-and-a-half after he and Haitian officials launched an initiative to eliminate the disease from the entire island of Hispaniola, which Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic.
That initiative would offer efforts on prevention, treatment and education, while seeking to raise about $2.2 billion.
“Haiti has seen a dramatic fall in infection and fatality rates. But this will not be a short-term crisis,” Ban said at the time of the December 2012 launch. “Eliminating cholera from Haiti will continue to require the full cooperation and support of the international community.”
But getting the international community to cough up money hasn’t been easy and today a little more than 20 percent of the goal has been raised, said Pedro Medrano Rojas, the retired Chilean diplomat tapped by Ban to spearhead the cholera response plan.
Speaking to the Herald just days before the end of his 18-month tenure as senior coordinator for the cholera response last month, Medrano said his biggest disappointment was the international community and its failure to “acknowledge the fact that we have in Haiti the largest epidemic in the western hemisphere.”
“They are not protecting the gains we have already made because no doubt that progress has been made,” he said. “I have asked many governments around the world, what would you do if you had 50,000 new cases of cholera every year, and of course everybody would consider this an emergency. “
Haitians continue to die and get sick from cholera. And while advocates say current figures show a worsening of the crisis, Medrano says the overall new cases and death rates continue to decline.
In 2014, for example, Haiti had 28,000 new cases of cholera. In previous year, the numbers were well over 60,000 cases and at its debut, 100,000 cases.
The decline, while a sign of the progress that has been made, also has unfortunately, created the perception “that things are under control,” and cholera is no longer a problem.
“Things are under control, but the work is not finished. Every year we need to have the capacity to respond,” Medrano said.
As part of his job, Medrano spent considerable time traveling the hemisphere in hopes of raising funds and awareness about the elimination campaign. But the fact cholera was never declared an emergency, unlike Ebola, constrained his efforts, he said.
“Otherwise, the resources would have been mobilized for investments, which take time,” he said. “It is true, to solve the problem in Haiti we need to have this investment in water and sanitation. This is the backbone for not only the health-related issues but development in the country and this has been neglected for many, many decades.”
But there are successes, outside of the decline in new cholera cases and deaths. Among them, Medrano said, is the establishment of a high-level committee with the government of Haiti. It will continue to work, he said, with U.N. agencies and seek funds to improve access to clean water and sanitation.
“We have mechanisms to deal with the response as well as the assistance to communities and families affected,” he said. “This has been one of the main achievements.
“From the U.N. system, we have been able to develop a common plan, a common program, and establish internal coordination mechanism. I think we have made a lot of progress,” Medrano said. “And we have a mechanism to work with the government, which in the past, we didn’t have it.”
Meanwhile, human rights groups say more needs to be done and victims deserve compensation, while Haitians in Haiti need to have improved access to clean water and sanitation. The letter was sent by the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti, which has filed one of several lawsuits on behalf of cholera victims and expressed ‘deep outrage’ at the UN’s failure to take responsibility for the cholera epidemic it introduced.”
“We have lost family and friends to cholera, and we live with the threat of losing more of our loved ones,” the letter says. “Our community has also taken on significant financial burdens due to cholera, as we support our relatives’ funeral expenses, health care costs, and school fees for children orphaned by the epidemic.”