Altos funcionarios del contingente de Nepal en Haití, caminando ante tuberías de letrinas de la base nepalés de las Naciones Unidas en Mirebalais, Haití, el 31 de octubre de 2010. Crédito Ramón Espinosa / AP
Por JONATHAN M. KATZ, New York Times, 19 de agosto de 2016 – Esta semana, una frase salió de la sede de las Naciones Unidas que pensé que nunca escucharía. Un portavoz del Secretario General Ban Ki-moon, se refirió a la “propia participación” de la organización en el brote de cólera en Haití en 2010.
Puede que no parezca mucho desde el exterior, pero en el contexto de esos lugares diferentes pero fuertemente enlazados – la nación caribeña a menudo faltado el respeto y la sede de las Naciones Unidas sobre el Río East en el centro de Manhattan que ha controlado gran parte de la historia reciente de Haití – las palabras significaban un cambio tectónico.
(Sigue el texto original en inglés)
Scientists and researchers have repeatedly found, with overwhelming consensus, that U.N. peacekeepers introduced the disease to Haiti for the first time ever recorded by knowingly allowing their infected feces to slough into the Meille River, which locals used for drinking, bathing and washing — in violation of the U.N’s own protocols and the most basic tenets of public health.
Yet for six years, as thousands — if not tens of thousands — of Haitians died painful, degrading deaths of dehydration from severe vomiting and diarrhea, the world’s most important international humanitarian organization destroyed evidence, dissembled and, when all else failed, stonewalled. Ban even promoted the head of the peacekeeping mission in Haiti at the time of the outbreak and initial cover-up to become his own personal chief of staff.
Anger and righteous disgust soared in Haiti. “It is with great sadness that I write this letter to remind you that human rights must be respected, whatever type of country you’re from,” Viengeméne Ulisse, who was hospitalized for more than a week with cholera in 2011, wrote the Security Council last year: one of 2,000 victims’ letters collected by lawyers bringing a class-action suit against the U.N. in United States federal court.
But on Thursday, shortly after the U.N. acknowledged its role in the outbreak to me for the first time, the Federal Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld a lower-court ruling that said the U.N. is immune from any kind of lawsuit under an international convention — even if it ignores other parts of that same convention saying it then has to provide some other way to resolve disputes, as it refused to do in this case. This seemed like good news for the U.N. The court could have ordered it to pay victims and their families $40 billion or more in restitution — equal to five years’ worth of worldwide peacekeeping budgets.
In that light, it was also a victory for one of the less-publicized players in this case: the United States government. Because the U.N. has refused to accept the legitimacy of the federal case, Justice Department lawyers have defended the organization instead in court. Judge José A. Cabranes cited the Obama administration’s U.N.-friendly interpretation of the immunities convention as a significant factor in the three-judge panel’s decision. Lawyers for the plaintiffs are still deciding whether to appeal to the Supreme Court.
I have heard for years from high-level United Nations officials that American resistance has played a major role in keeping the organization from coming clean about what happened in Haiti and settling with victims. There are a few reasons the Obama administration would do that. The president has frequently defended the United Nations, which on its better days represents the multilateral, diplomatic approach central to his foreign policy worldview — in contrast to the philosophies of George W. Bush or Donald Trump. Any U.S. president would also want to uphold the principle that troops operating on foreign soil can’t be hauled into local courts, whether they’re blue-helmeted Nepalese peacekeepers in Haiti or American soldiers in Afghanistan.
There’s also a financial angle. Any restitution will ultimately have to come from member states. None is more invested than the United States, which supplies more than a quarter of the United Nations peacekeeping budget, an expenditure that Washington, perennial congressional grumbling notwithstanding, has generally considered well spent: It allows the United States to outsource many overseas military missions it would otherwise feel pressure to undertake itself. The Bush administration led the way in creating the U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti, or Minustah, putting together a blue-helmeted force to replace U.S. soldiers and Marines whom Bush sent to Haiti after a 2004 coup d’état. If there is one thing the Obama administration and Republicans in Congress can agree on, it’s that neither wants to pay the United Nations more than it is already obligated to.
But there’s another way of looking at this. So far, the U.N.’s absolute legal immunity has translated into a total lack of accountability as well. But as a deeply critical internal report by a U.N. adviser, Philip Alston, which I obtained this week, made clear, hiding behind the veil of silence and deniability has allowed the cholera crisis — one of the peacekeeping mission’s “three major sins,” along with sexual assault by peacekeepers and a general refusal to accept accountability, Alston wrote — to metastasize into a threat to the organization.
This has been going on from the beginning of the crisis. In October 2010, when reports of unusual deaths in the countryside reached Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, rumors spread through Haiti that a U.N. peacekeeping base that was home to Nepalese soldiers was responsible. But instead of calling for a thorough investigation, Minustah denounced the rumors as spurious. A spokesman then sent out a news release making false claims about the quality of sanitation at the base.
I was The Associated Press correspondent in Haiti at the time, so I went to the base and started looking around. I not only found a sanitation disaster but also ran into U.N. military police secretly taking groundwater samples. I then watched through the base’s fence as the soldiers dug up leaking pipes and hastily drained an overflowing septic tank, dumping its contents across the street in an unlined pit.
The U.N. knew its soldiers from Nepal had just arrived from a country with an active cholera outbreak, and knew they had not been screened for the disease. But Minustah officials spent months trying to convince journalists that the accusations about the base were false or too dangerous to investigate, or both. They were assisted by allies at the World Health Organization and the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who repeatedly told the public that finding the source of the epidemic was “not productive” and “not important” while declining to conduct investigations of their own. As deaths continued, young Haitians took to the streets, setting up flaming barricades and throwing rocks at U.N. soldiers, who fired back. Several protesters died.
U.N. officials have spent the six years since then avoiding the issue by using evasive language and ignoring the findings of their own appointed scientists, who indicated that negligent sanitation at the organization’s base introduced the South Asian strain of cholera into Haiti. Sometimes they have encouraged the incorrect perception that the outbreak was somehow a result of the magnitude-7.0 earthquake that struck a different part of the country more than nine months before the first cases appeared and was barely felt in the area where the cholera outbreak began. In other cases, Alston noted in his report, U.N. officials have changed the topic by accusing those asking about the organization’s responsibility of playing “the blame game” — while themselves shifting blame to the wider inadequacy of sanitation practices in Haiti or insisting that the whole matter be dropped because of “the need to move beyond the past.”
These talking points are familiar to anyone who has reported on the cholera epidemic. In April, I interviewed Atul Khare, the under secretary general who oversees all United Nations field missions worldwide and who stressed to me the organization’s belief in accountability and environmental stewardship around the world. When I asked whether this meant there should be consequences for the United Nations after the outbreak, he hastened to clarify: “I am talking about future actions. I cannot go back and change the past. That is impossible.”
The United Nations has also pointed to its efforts to eradicate the disease in Haiti in the context of its other development projects there. In June, Jan Eliasson, the deputy secretary general, assured me via email that the organization was honoring its “fundamental responsibility to the Haitian people and to the Haitian nation … to improve education, housing and health care, as well as programs aimed at securing sanitation and clean water.”
Alston blasted that logic in his report, noting that for all its talk, the United Nations has raised just 18 percent of the funds needed for even a relatively modest $2.2 billion cholera eradication program in Haiti. There have been some vaccination programs and emergency assistance, but no significant water or sanitation systems — the things that have kept cholera from ravaging wealthy countries since the late 19th century — have been built. “The United Nations consistently calls upon states to acknowledge wrongdoing, to ensure meaningful processes for the vindication of claims and to provide victims with redress,” Alston wrote. “Yet in the Haiti case, the victims are told that a handful of broadly focused development projects should provide sufficient redress.” He later added: “Project-based initiatives should not be seen as a substitute for personal compensation.”
And yet even as the United Nations refused to accept the legitimacy of the lawsuit against it, Ban and other U.N. officials have used the legal action as a pretext not to answer questions about the epidemic.
So, keeping all that in mind, for a vast international bureaucracy where any stray word in any one of its five official languages could represent the difference between war and peace, those two words — “own involvement” — are monumental. They are, my contacts inside the organization tell me, the product of years of battles between forces fighting to protect the organization from all liability on one hand and others who believe it is the U.N.’s mission to fight for human rights, even behind the glass facade of its New York headquarters.
The question is whether, absent a court or some other outside power, the United Nations and its members — particularly the United States — will choose on their own to spend the money and put in the effort to make things right again. So far they haven’t. The stonewalling has destroyed what was left of the United Nations’ reputation in Haiti, and has done the organization few favors in the rest of the world. Meanwhile, people in Haiti continue to die from cholera, infection rates continue to rise, and the damage to the country’s economy, social structures and reputation goes unrepaired.
In the report’s final line, Alston called specifically on the United States government to “actively support a resolution to this ongoing crisis that respects the rights of the victims of this tragedy and best serves the reputational and other interests of the United Nations.”
That those actions will be presented only after being agreed to with the Haitian authorities could delay matters further: Haiti doesn’t currently have an elected president, because of delays in a shambolic, unfinished election largely funded, so far, by the United States.
But there is another deadline approaching too. This September, presidents, prime ministers and monarchs from nearly every nation will converge on the U.N. for the opening of the General Assembly — the U.N.’s biggest annual event, and the last of Ban’s decade-long tenure as secretary-general.
When Ban’s office received Alston’s report, the secretary-general was traveling in South America, attending events around the opening of the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. On Friday, Ban called on member states to boost funding for Haitiand said, via a spokesman, that he was “actively working to develop a package that would provide material assistance and support to those Haitians most directly affected by cholera.” He also repeated a vague comment he made in 2014 about a “moral responsibility” on the part of the U.N. for Haiti’s cholera epidemic. But he didn’t offer any concrete details.
With Ban’s term winding down, and his mind on his legacy, does the subtle shift in his office’s language suggest a real reckoning is coming? Alston hopes so, for the sake not only of the Haitian people, but the whole of the United Nations as well. “A festering sore,” he says in his report, “is much worse than a wound that is healed.”
Jonathan M. Katz is a freelance journalist and the author of ‘‘The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster.’’ He previously wrote for the magazine about the Dominican Republic’s deportation of people of Haitian descent.
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