Haiti deserves justice

The Miami HeraldJuly 17, 2014 

The following editorial appeared in the Miami Herald on Tuesday, July 15:

It's been a long time coming, but finally this week U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon acknowledged that the world body bears "moral responsibility" for introducing cholera into Haiti. Now the United Nations needs to be held accountable for the consequences of its actions.

Although he was only admitting the obvious, it took courage for the secretary-general to go as far as he did, considering that the United Nations has been in denial for four years regarding its role in the cholera epidemic. No doubt, U.N. lawyers warned him against taking any kind of responsibility for the tragedy that killed some 8,500 Haitians and infected roughly 700,000.

But this should be only the beginning of the U.N.'s effort to make things right with the people of Haiti. "Moral responsibility" requires that the United Nations take concrete steps to back up the secretary-general's admission. Otherwise, it amounts to nothing more than hollow words.

The first thing the secretary-general needs to do is apologize to the victims and their survivors on behalf of the United Nations. It doesn't seem like a big deal, yet it would mean a lot to those who have been wronged. The U.N.'s failure to apologize, even though its own panel of experts pointed the finger at peacekeeping troops from Nepal for inadvertently introducing cholera into the country because of the lack of sanitary waste removal, has added insult to injury and created an enormous reservoir of resentment by Haitians.

Second, the United Nations needs to embark on a campaign to bring clean water and sanitation to Haiti. On this score, Ban is moving in the right direction. He is in Haiti this week on what he called a "necessary pilgrimage" to promote efforts to alleviate the epidemic, seeking support for a $2.2 billion, 10-year cholera-elimination campaign.

The program is commendable, but what's needed is a U.N. commitment to ensure that there is no repetition of the epidemic and other infectious diseases endemic in the Haitian countryside. That means creating pilot projects around the country promoting clean sanitation, similar to the one Ban launched this week in the community of Los Palmas. U.N. donor countries need to step up here. Without clean sanitation, Haitians are condemned to perpetual misery and disease.

Finally, there is the troubling issue of compensation. The cholera outbreak is the subject of three lawsuits in U.S. courts, which the United Nations and Ban have rejected by citing the U.N's claim of diplomatic immunity.

The law may be on the U.N.'s side, but diplomatic immunity (also called "sovereign immunity") seems a flimsy response when 700,000 people have been victimized by the possible negligence of U.N. peacekeepers. And surely, it makes a mockery of Ban's admission of "moral responsibility." Accepting responsibility while refusing compensation rubs salt in the wound.

Last fall, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay called for an investigation of the cholera epidemic and supported compensation for victims. Ban cannot in good conscience ignore this statement from one of the U.N's own top officials.

The best way to establish a fair system of compensation would be to create a claims commission, not unlike the one that followed the BP oil spill on the Gulf Coast. A claims commission has its own complexities and aggravations, but it beats years of lawsuits and endless wrangling. It's the right way to hold the United Nations accountable for its moral responsibility.

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