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The UN's Crucial Cholera Admission

The UN's Crucial Cholera Admission

Cholera victims' portraits before going on display for an MCC-supported campaign across from the UN in New York City. October 2015. Photo credit: Bea Lindstrom.

Cholera victims' portraits before going on display for an MCC-supported campaign across from the UN in New York City. October 2015. Photo credit: Bea Lindstrom.

Two weeks ago, UN officials went on record admitting their role in causing a cholera epidemic that has swept Haiti since 2010, leaving at least 10,000 dead and over 800,000 infected. The New York Times carried this news on its front page, and dozens of the top media outlets followed suit. Le Nouvelliste, Haiti’s national newspaper, featured this as front page news above pressing elections updates, and organizations like MCC that have advocated alongside cholera victims for years are rejoicing. So what is the real significance of this news, and what will it mean for Haitians?

In a somewhat out-of-the-ordinary move, I interviewed my husband and fellow advocate Ted Oswald (with whom I share a desk, and a service worker position) to help us understand the significance of this development:

Q: First, what is the background on the outbreak, and why should the UN be considered responsible? 

A man examines one of the cholera victim portraits installed by MCC and partners. Bea Lindstrom.

A man examines one of the cholera victim portraits installed by MCC and partners. Bea Lindstrom.

T: In October 2010, just ten months after a deadly earthquake struck Haiti, cholera began infecting people in Haiti's countryside and quickly spread throughout the country. Cholera is a waterborne disease that was previously undocumented in Haiti. The source of the outbreak was traced to a UN base where Nepalese peacekeeping troops were housed. As scientists investigated, they noted the strain of cholera was unique to South Asia where the disease is endemic, and experts and independent investigations soon concluded that the troops’ were almost certainly the source. 

The UN had not screened its peacekeeping troops for the disease and discharged the troops’ contaminated solid waste in Haiti’s main waterway. It then dismissed victims’ claims for redress and claimed a blanket immunity. 

While the UN did create a cholera elimination plan that has helped save lives over the past six years, it is severely underfunded, and the UN has systematically denied responsibility for the outbreak. 

Q: How did the UN go about admitting their role in Haiti’s cholera outbreak? Help us understand the significance of its admission. 

A cholera victims' testimony within the UN Security Council chamber. Bea Lindstrom.

A cholera victims' testimony within the UN Security Council chamber. Bea Lindstrom.

T: After years of effort urging the UN to accept responsibility, strengthen its response, and compensate victims,the UN unexpectedly changed course two weeks ago. The office of Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, when commenting to a reporter, acknowledged the UN played a role in the initial outbreak, noting 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[,]” and announcing a “new response will be presented publicly within the next two months, once it has been fully elaborated, agreed with the Haitian authorities and discussed with member states.”

This is a groundbreaking development that signals the first real possibility of progress in the fight against cholera in years. However, Haitians and advocacy groups realize that accepting blame is not the same as taking action, and we await the UN’s public announcement of their plans.  

Q: What real difference could this make for Haiti’s cholera victims?

T: The greatest hope is that this admission will herald new and significant UN investment in immunization, treatment, and water and sanitation infrastructure that will curtail cholera’s spread and eliminate the disease. It remains to be seen if the UN’s new plans will consider reparations to victims who either contracted cholera or lost family members to the disease, and we will continue to advocate for this.

Q: How has MCC been involved in advocating around this issue?

T: For the past six years MCC has actively called for greater UN cholera accountability and advocated alongside victims. Service workers and staff from the Haiti, New York, and DC offices have drafted articles and editorials, created an infographic, met with UN staff, hosted prayer events and film screenings, signed letters and shared petitions. Most recently, staff collaborated among offices to mount a campaign called FACE|JUSTICE, a campaign that featured cholera victims’ stories and brought them before audiences at the UN in Geneva, New York, and Port-au-Prince.

Fellow advocates pose in front of cholera victims' images at the UN log base in Port-au-Prince. Photo credit: Ted Oswald.

Fellow advocates pose in front of cholera victims' images at the UN log base in Port-au-Prince. Photo credit: Ted Oswald.

Q: What are the next steps?

T: We’re revamping our FACE|JUSTICE campaign with partners and readying a letter for U.S. faith-based organizations to sign on to that is addressed to President Obama and Secretary Kerry, urging them to pressure the UN to publicly apologize to victims, provide funding, and ensure a comprehensive response that consults victims and Haitian civil society. We’ll await the unveiling of the UN’s new cholera elimination plan and will scrutinize it closely, doing all we can to help ensure assistance reaches communities and individuals affected by cholera.

Thank you, Ted! Ted and I will be visiting MCC UN’s office in New York in October where we will explore this issue and others related to Haiti with students at the annual Student Seminar. You can find information on the seminar on our Facebook page.

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