There’s been plenty of tragedy in Haiti for a long time now, but one of the most recent disasters was the earthquake which leveled significant portions of the island in 2010. The world pulled together to send help in rebuilding and providing clean food and water for the residents, but they had another disaster heading their way which nobody foresaw. When the United Nations peacekeepers from Nepal arrived to provide security in the most damaged areas they brought something besides just food, water and blankets. They brought cholera, which was currently widespread in their home nation.
What started out as a trickle of cases quickly grew to epidemic proportions. That’s not hyperbole in terms of describing it because the death toll from the raging wave of cholera has thus far grown to more than ten thousand people and perhaps three times as many were sickened. The problem has dragged out for years, but as the Washington Post’s editorial board notes this week, it took half a decade before the U.N. Secretary General finally owned up to what they had done.
Only when it became clear that its credibility was in tatters, and its authority to insist that member states adhere to international norms was in jeopardy, did the United Nations finally come to terms publicly with its culpability in the cholera outbreak. “We simply didn’t do enough with regard to the cholera outbreak and its spread in Haiti,” Mr. Ban said. “We are profoundly sorry about our role.”
His statement, coming just a month before his term as the United Nations’ eighth secretary general expires, painstakingly avoided an overt admission of what is already known: that the outbreak began when Nepalese peacekeepers, failing to use basic protocols of sanitation at their base when they arrived in 2010, contaminated a nearby river that provided drinking water for Haitians. Cholera was rampant in Nepal at the time; it had been unknown in Haiti for decades.
I suppose in the “credit where due” department we should acknowledge that it’s good that Ban Ki-moon is finally taking responsibility for this and is promising to devote more resources to isolating the spread of the disease and offering treatment. What they don’t seem to have the funding for is the promised reparations to the families of those who died or were sickened. Still, some accountability is better than none when it comes to the U.N. because they’ve shown precious little of it in the past.
On some level I suppose we might be able to almost excuse the United Nations for this debacle, at least in part. There’s no indication that anyone knowingly brought the disease into Haiti (which had been free of cholera for decades before this disaster). Still, the fact that Nepal was rife with the disease was well known at the time of the earthquake and not checking the peacekeepers for it before they arrived was inexcusable.
Still, an accidental disaster is better than the many, many incidents of U.N. peacekeepers doing truly evil, horrific acts in the countries they are ostensibly working to help. The most common is the sexual abuse and rape of victims in affected areas. Despite repeated complaints and promises from the agency to police themselves better, the problem doesn’t seem to be going away. Just this summer there was yet another round of complaints out of the Central African Republic where U.N. workers were found to have gang raped women in the villages they were “protecting.” Children were being sexually abused in exchange for food. It’s the same stories we seem to hear from far too many of these locations.
If the United Nations can’t ensure that their own “peacekeepers” aren’t going to assault and injure the people they are sent to help, what benefit is there in continuing to send them in? And with the rapists rarely if ever receiving any punishment more severe than being sent home, there is little incentive for them to behave better.