The day before United Nations Secretary Ban Ki-moon was set to make the case that ridding Haiti of the scourge of cholera should be a humanitarian funding priority, human rights attorney Mario Joseph wondered whether the outgoing world leader would finally issue a long-sought public apology.
For six years, Ban had refused to either apologize or acknowledge the role of his blue-helmeted peacekeepers in introducing the deadly waterborne disease to Haiti during relief efforts after a devastating earthquake that killed more than 300,000.
“The U.N. secretary general has always hidden behind lies in order to avoid admitting that they were the ones responsible for bringing cholera to Haiti,” said Joseph, who heads the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, a partner of the Boston-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, which filed a lawsuit on behalf of 5,000 cholera victims.
On Thursday, Joseph finally got the acknowledgment he wanted. Ban, a South Korean diplomat wrapping up his decade-long run as U.N. chief, issued an apology. It’s an important step, many in the Haitian and diplomatic communities hope, to getting U.N. member countries to fund a $400 million plan to eradicate cholera from Haiti, and compensate its thousands of victims.
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“On behalf of the United Nations, I want to say very clearly: We apologize to the Haitian people,” Ban said in English after asking “the Haitian people’s pardon” in Creole. “We are profoundly sorry for our role.”
In the live broadcast from the U.N. headquarters in New York, during which he detailed the plan, Ban acknowledged that the powerful world body “simply did not do enough with regard to the cholera outbreak and its spread in Haiti.”
More than 9,000 Haitians have died from cholera and almost 800,000 have been afflicted with it, Haiti’s health ministry has said, since the first case was reported on Oct. 21, 2010, in the Artibonite region after the arrival of Nepalese peacekeepers.
Getting Ban to this point wasn’t easy, U.N. Deputy Secretary General Jan Eliasson said Thursday, as he called on nations to voluntarily fund the plan.
“It wasn’t easy for him to do this,” Eliasson said. “We had a part of this tragedy.”
The detailed plans to eliminate cholera, outlined by Ban and in a U.N. report, call for intensifying rapid response teams, strengthening epidemiological surveillance, rapid detection and the reporting and treatments of cases by mobilizing adequate funding.
The effort also calls for combining cholera vaccinations with water and sanitation interventions, more focused geographical targeting and strengthened support for longer-term water and sanitation services.
A long-term objective also includes Haitians having access to adequate supplies of clean water and functioning sanitation. The investments will be made through a public-private consortium that includes the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank.
The approach, the United Nations stressed in its report, can only work with sufficient money to pay for it: “For the past six years, both the immediate response and longer-term efforts have been severely hampered by funding shortages which have made it impossible to fully treat or eliminate what is generally a treatable and preventable disease.”
The second track of the plan involves compensating victims, either with a community-based approach or one that provides cash to victims, which could prove difficult given poor record-keeping and the fact that many cholera victims didn’t make it to a hospital.
The U.N. said it plans to meet with victims in Haiti before making a final decision on the package.
Joseph, whose clients lost their case against the U.N. when a U.S. federal appeals court in August upheld the U.N.’s immunity from a damage claim, said he and the victims are waiting.
“First, I salute Ban Ki-moon for asking pardon from the cholera victims,” he said. “They know that cholera blemished their recognition and this is what we’ve been waiting for, a public excuse. ...But now it is the package we are waiting on.”
About 100 cholera victims and family members gathered at Joseph’s Port-au-Prince office Thursday to hear Ban’s message, which will also be shared over Haitian radio in Creole in the coming days. While they welcomed his words, Joseph said, many feel that the $400 million is too little to address all that he outlined.
“They don’t think they will be able to do the sanitation work and compensate the victims,” he said.
The U.N. acknowledges that the compensation component “will inevitably be an imperfect exercise, fraught with practical and moral hazards. ... The package is not likely to fully satisfy all those who have been calling for such a step, nor will it happen overnight.”
Philip Alston, the independent United Nations human rights adviser who has criticized the U.N.’s handling of cholera, said Ban’s apology doesn’t go far enough.
“He apologizes that the UN has not done more to eradicate cholera, but not for causing the disease in the first place,” he said. “As a result, there remains a good chance that little or no money will be raised and that the grand new approach will remain a breakthrough on paper, but one that brings little to the victims and people of Haiti.”
During the U.N. meeting, representatives of more than 20 nations spoke, saying they were glad Ban had apologized for what India’s representative called “a regrettable episode.”
But while many called on members to contribute financially, it remains unclear how much money will be raised.
“I keenly recognize the financial pressures that you face — indeed, that we all face,” Ban said. “I understand the reaction of being overwhelmed by what seems to be a never-ending list of pressing humanitarian needs around the world.”
But, he added, “This mission is realistic and doable,” he added. “Cholera is a treatable and preventable disease. It can be controlled and eliminated. What is standing in the way is adequate resources and means of delivery.”
Ban said that as he prepares to exit the U.N., he wanted to address the cholera crisis that “had cast a shadow upon the relationship between the United Nations and the people of Haiti.”
“It is a blemish on the reputation of UN peacekeeping and the organization worldwide,” he told member states.
Haiti’s ambassador to the U.N., Denis Regis, called on members to support the plan, calling it “a more generous, more humane, more constructive new approach.”