Accountability for a Public Health Crisis – The UN’s Role in Haiti’s Cholera Epidemic

Political instability, a crumbling economy, and natural disaster have characterized the recent history of Haiti, but following a massive earthquake in 2010, a seemingly avoidable public health crisis – a massive cholera epidemic – was  added to the laundry list of catastrophes the country was faced with.

Earlier this month, advocates from the Boston-based Institute for Justice and Development in Haiti (IJDH) filed a lawsuit against the United Nations on behalf of a group of Haitian citizens affected by the cholera epidemic. The suit alleges that the outbreak was a direct result of negligence on the UN’s part. Based on evidence that UN peacekeepers from Nepal unknowingly brought the virus to Haiti when responding after the earthquake, the suit also alleges that inadequate sanitation systems in UN camps fed directly into a major water source, exacerbating the spread of the disease. The UN has yet to officially acknowledge any fault and rather, has held to claims of diplomatic immunity.

Misguided critiques have cited the lawsuit as an example of Haiti, a country largely dependent on UN and donor services, “biting the hand that feeds it.” This critique completely misses the historical context that has pushed Haiti into the position it is today and ignores power dynamics between global institutions like the UN, international donors, and resource-strapped countries. Financial dependence on such international actors does not strip a nation and its citizens of their right to health.

How should we hold global institutions accountable for such failures in public health? If the UN is found responsible for introducing the disease and guilty of negligence by inadvertently fostering its spread, new questions arise regarding how to deal with the spread of contagious disease. Is the legal system the best route to deal with such seemingly avoidable catastrophes, or does this open a can of worms that could detract from the power of such institutions to perform important, life-saving services in times of disaster and emergency?

Perhaps even more critical than the issue of legal responsibility is the failure of the UN to take moral responsibility for its role in the cholera epidemic. Failure to acknowledge its part in the spread of the disease contradicts the very principles that the UN stands for, loses sight of obligations to the Haitian people, and inhibits any sort of institutional growth or learning.

The only way for the UN, and other major global institutions, to advance on the delivery of their goals is to not only acknowledge their failures, but also prioritize the implementation of measures to avoid such failures in the future. Without measures of accountability, well-intentioned international actors will continue to cause more harm than good and resource-strapped countries like Haiti will continue to shoulder the burden.

What do you think – should the UN be held accountable for their role in Haiti’s cholera epidemic and if so, is the legal system the best framework to deal with this? What implications could the lawsuit have on the way in which such institutions deal with future public health crises?

Read the IJDH’s case here, and check out an advocacy video from the organization here.


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