Report Finds U.N. Responsible for Deadly Cholera Epidemic in Haiti

The United Nations inadvertently caused a deadly cholera epidemic in Haiti, and has legal and moral obligations to remedy the situation, according to new report released by researchers from the Yale Law School and Yale School of Public Health.

The 58-page report, Peacekeeping without Accountability, provides the first comprehensive analysis of the cause of the massive outbreak of cholera in Haiti—which has killed more than 8,000 people and sickened more than 600,000 since it began in 2010. The report examines the role the U.N. played in precipitating the crisis and the U.N.’s responsibilities to provide legal remedies to victims of the epidemic. It directly contradicts recent statements by the U.N. Secretary-General that the organization did not bring cholera to Haiti, and has no legal responsibilities for the epidemic or its consequences. 

Peacekeeping without Accountability is issued by the Transnational Development Clinic at Yale Law School and the Global Health Justice Partnership at the Yale Law School and the Yale School of Public Health, in collaboration with the Haitian Environmental Law Association (Association Hatïenne de Droit de L’Environment).

“While the U.N. has played an important role in the Haitian post-earthquake recovery effort, it has also caused great harm to hundreds of thousands of Haitians,” said Tassity Johnson ’13, one of the authors of the report. To date, the U.N. has refused to consider the claims of approximately 5,000 Haitians seeking redress, invoking its immunity in concluding that the claims are “not receivable.”

“The U.N.’s ongoing unwillingness to hold itself accountable to victims violates its obligations under international law. Moreover, in failing to lead by example, the U.N. undercuts its very mission of promoting the rule of law, protecting human rights, and assisting in the further development of Haiti,” Johnson said.

A 2013 graduate of the Yale School of Public Health, Rosalyn A. Chan, was one of the report’s authors. YSPH professor Albert I. Ko also reviewed a draft of the report and made recommendations and YSPH Professor Alice Miller was one of several project supervisors.

The report is the result of more than a year of research into the key epidemiological and legal issues arising out of the introduction of cholera to Haiti. The report incorporates consultations with victims of the epidemic, human rights advocates, attorneys, journalists, aid workers, medical doctors, and government agency officials with first-hand knowledge of the epidemic.

The report confirms prior accounts that U.N. peacekeepers inadvertently but negligently brought cholera into Haiti, causing one of the largest epidemics in recent history. As the report documents, in October 2010, peacekeeping troops belonging to the U.N.’s Haitian mission, MINUSTAH, unknowingly carried cholera into the country. Because of inadequate water and sanitation facilities at the MINUSTAH base in the Haitian town of Méyè, sewage from the base contaminated the Artibonite River, the largest river in Haiti and one the country’s main water sources.

By July 2011, cholera spread through the country, infecting one new person per minute. The epidemic continues, and public health experts estimate it will take a decade or longer to eliminate cholera from Haiti. Prior to this outbreak, cholera had not existed in Haiti for more than a century.

Peacekeeping without Accountability provides a comprehensive set of recommendations outlining the steps the U.N. and other principal actors in Haiti should take to meaningfully address the cholera epidemic. The report calls for setting up a claims commission, as well as providing a public apology, direct aid to victims, infrastructural support, and adequate funding for the prevention and treatment of cholera. It also emphasizes that the prevention of similar harms in the future requires that the U.N. commit to reforming the waste management practices of its peacekeepers and complying with its contractual and international law obligations.

This article was submitted by Denise L Meyer on August 9, 2013.

Rosalyn Chan (left) with Celso Carballo-Perez, Yale Law School, a teammate in the GHJP project outside the government's bureau for water and sanitation, Dinepa. Dinepa was part of the initial response team and started a program to check water chlorination levels and surveillance of the disease at camps for internally displaced persons.

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Albert Icksang Ko

Department Chair and Professor of Epidemiology (Microbial Diseases) and of Medicine (Infectious Diseases)

Alice M. Miller

Associate Research Scholar in Law and Lecturer in the MacMillan Center and Associate Professor (Adjunct) of Law and Assistant Clinical Professor of Public Health (Social and Behavioral Sciences)