U.N. must take accountability for cholera epidemic in Haiti

It is now all but certain that Haiti’s cholera epidemic, which has killed more than 8,000 people and sickened more than 600,000, is directly traceable to a battalion of U.N. peacekeepers who arrived in the country after the 2010 earthquake. The United Nations and its peacekeepers have done immeasurable good in Haiti and elsewhere, but in this instance they bear responsibility for unleashing one of the world’s most devastating recent epidemics.

The peacekeepers, from Nepal, where cholera is endemic, established their base on the banks of a tributary that feeds one of Haiti’s main sources of drinking water, the Artibonite River. Owing to the base’s slapdash sanitation system — drainage sites containing human feces that flooded and overflowed in the rain — waste water flowed into the tributary and contaminated the river.

In a country where no cases of cholera had been recorded in more than 150 years, the disease spread so fast that within nine months of the battalion’s arrival in late 2010, the number of cholera-infected Haitians surpassed all recorded cholera infections in the rest of the world combined. Hundreds more will continue to die annually for years to come in a nation whose anemic health, hygiene and sanitation infrastructure is no match for the ravages of a water-borne disease.

A report from researchers at the Yale School of Public Health and Yale Law School details the convincing epidemiological evidence, as well as the United Nations’ stubborn disavowal of responsibility. Initially, a panel of independent experts enlisted by the United Nations said that the evidence pointing to the peacekeepers was mainly circumstantial. Now the experts have reversed themselves, saying that the Nepalese peacekeepers were “most likely” the cause of the epidemic. Still, the United Nations refuses to accept legal, financial or moral responsibility.

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