UN chief feels ‘regret and sorrow’ over Haiti cholera outbreak

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon speaks before opening the general debate at U.N. headquarters, Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2016.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon speaks before opening the general debate at U.N. headquarters, Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2016. AP

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon Tuesday expressed “tremendous regret” over the cholera outbreak in Haiti as part of his opening address to the U.N. General Assembly.

“I feel tremendous regret and sorrow at the profound suffering of Haitians affected by cholera,” he said, speaking in French. “The time has come for a new approach to ease the plight and better their lives. This is our firm and enduring moral responsibility.”

It was the first time since the cholera outbreak began in 2010 that Ban, who has four months left on his 10-year tenure as the head of the United Nations, mentioned the deadly epidemic in his annual address to the General Assembly. He later raised the issue in a meeting with President Barack Obama, who also addressed the assembly.

Ban informed Obama of the assistance plan currently being developed for Haitians most directly affected by cholera, and said he hopes he can count on the United States’ support.

In his opening remarks, Ban also expressed regret over the “despicable” acts of sexual violence by some U.N. peacekeepers in Haiti and elsewhere around the globe where the global body is active. An internal report by the U.N. Office of Internal Oversight Services, released last year, found that troops commonly paid for sex.

“A number of U.N. peacekeepers and other personnel have compounded the suffering of people already caught up in armed conflicts and also undermined the work done by so many around the world,” he said. “Protectors must never become predators.”

Ban’s public acknowledgment of the United Nations’ “involvement in the initial outbreak” of Haiti’s 2010 cholera outbreak comes on the heels of a confidential report by a U.N. expert who blamed the organization’s actions for the water-borne disease’s appearance in Haiti months after the country was hit by a devastating earthquake.

Several scientific studies have traced the outbreak to Nepalese soldiers stationed in an isolated rural base near the Meille River in Haiti. The river flows into the Artibonite Valley, where the first cholera deaths were found. The Nepalese soldiers were with the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Haiti and had recently arrived from Nepal where a cholera outbreak was under way.

Ban first publicly acknowledged the United Nations’ “moral responsibility” to help Haiti address the deadly epidemic in a 2014 Miami Herald interview. It was his strongest statement on the issue until last month when deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said the United Nations had “become convinced that it needs to do much more regarding its own involvement in the initial outbreak” of cholera. Haq said officials were putting together a “significant new set of U.N. actions,” to intensify the flight against cholera, and that the details would be announced within two months.

Cholera has killed 9,393 and 790,840 have become sick as of Aug. 20, according to Haiti’s Ministry of Health. A new vaccination campaign was recently launched in Haiti, but critics say more is needed to prevent the disease’s spread in a country with almost nonexistent sanitation in some areas.

Last month, a U.S. federal court upheld the United Nations’ immunity, ruling in a class-action lawsuit brought by the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti on behalf of victims that the world body cannot not be sued in U.S. courts.

Brian Concannon Jr., head of Boston-based institute, said the organization will hold off on appealing the case to the Supreme Court until it learns details of the United Nations’ plans.

“We are looking forward to hearing those details, but will keep the struggle for justice going until the U.N. respects the victims’ rights,” Concannon said from Port-au-Prince, where a protest was planned Tuesday on behalf of cholera victims in front of the U.N. mission headquarters near the airport.

More than 40 international law, public health and human rights experts, many of whom have served the United Nations in advisory roles, have signed onto a letter urging the United Nations to launch a robust and transparent response to ending cholera in Haiti, and to uphold victims’ human rights. On Tuesday, U.S. senators Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) also sent a letter to Ban urging the United Nations to fulfill its obligations to help the people of Haiti. Among their requests, the global body needs to compensate victims and their families, and improve clean water and sanitation in Haiti.

“Haitians have waited far too long for the U.N. to take responsibility for this crisis and to compensate those affected,” the senators wrote. “We urge the U.N. to apply a comprehensive and transparent approach when considering how best to assist and compensate current and former victims of the disease and their families.”

To lead its latest cholera response, the global body has tapped Dr. David Nabarro, who coordinated the United Nations’ Ebola response. Nabarro quietly visited Haiti in August. The country has struggled to raise a proposed $2.2 billion as part of a 10-year cholera elimination plan ban that the Haiti government announced in 2012. So far only about 24 percent of the money has been raised.

“The failure to fund more of the elimination plan does raise concerns about the U.N.’s ability to fund its significant measures now,” Concannon said. “But that effort suffers from a lack of leadership from the beginning. If the U.N. is serious this time, and makes this a global priority, it can raise the money.

“I expect honesty will help,” Concannon said, noting that the United Nations has raised more than $7 billion for its peacekeeping operation in Haiti. “There was an inherent conflict in the U.N. trying to raise money for the epidemic on one hand, and minimizing it in the other to reduce its legal exposure.”