The United Nations acknowledged on Thursday that it played a role in the 2010 Haiti cholera outbreak that has killed nearly 10,000 Haitians and infected more than 770,000.
Farhan Haq, the deputy spokesman for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, promised a “significant new set of UN actions” to respond to the epidemic, following a confidential report sent to the UN chief that was critical of the world body’s actions.
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A draft of the report, prepared by New York University law professor Philip Alston, who serves as a special rapporteur advising the UN on human rights issues, said the crisis “would not have broken out but for the actions of the United Nations,” according to the New York Times.
“This is a major victory for the thousands of Haitians who have been marching for justice, writing to the UN and bringing the UN to court,” said Mario Joseph, a Haitian human rights lawyer representing victims of the epidemic.
“It is high time for the UN to make this right and prove to the world that ‘human rights for all’ means for Haitians too.”
Already one of the world’s poorest countries, Haiti was reeling from a devastating earthquake on January 12, 2010, that killed more than 200,000 people when its misery was compounded by the cholera outbreak.
The epidemic broke out near a base housing hundreds of Nepali peacekeepers.
“Over the past year, the UN 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,” the UN spokesman said.
Epidemiologists identified the Haitian strain of the illness as one that originated in Nepal where Cholera is endemic. Haiti had previously been cholera-free for more than 100 years.
According to UN figures, more than 770,000 Haitians have since been infected by the disease and nearly 10,000 have died from it since it broke out across the island nation in 2010.
Beatrice Lindstrom, a lawyer for the victims’ families, told Al Jazeera that the UN “must follow this announcement with action”.
“There still needs to be a public apology to the victims – to the tens of thousands of people who have suffered. There still needs to be compensation for the families and an elimination of cholera,” she said.
US courts have repeatedly rejected complaints filed by the families of cholera victims in New York, where the UN is headquartered, due to the world body’s immunity.
A UN official quoted by the AFP news agency as saying that “the UN legal position has not changed”.
Cholera, which is transmitted through contaminated drinking water and causes acute diarrhoea, is a major challenge in a country with poor sanitary conditions.
According to the UN, Some 72 percent of Haitians have no toilets at home and 42 percent still lack access to drinking water.
In a report published earlier this month, French epidemiologist Roland Piarroux found that more than 21,000 cases and 200 deaths took place from January to June this year.
“With a rainy season that will last through November or possibly December, we worry that cholera will be especially deadly this year, easily killing 400 or 500 people,” he said.
The UN has struggled to raise donor funds to eradicate cholera as part of a 10-year programme. Less than a quarter of the $2.1bn the UN is seeking has been raised so far.