Despicable: United Nations peacekeepers from Nepal infected a quake-stricken Haiti with cholera by polluting the Artibonite River with fecal matter from a faulty septic tank in 2010. To date, the cholera epidemic has killed over 8,000 Haitians, sickened approximately 649,000, and strained the island’s already-devastated public health care system to the breaking point. At time of writing, over 6% of the Haitian population has been infected.
This month, the UN responded to claims brought against them by survivors by simply throwing the case out, claiming blanket immunity from any legal culpability or further action. You didn't read that wrong. The UN responded to conclusive evidence that its troops introduced an infectious disease of epidemic proportions to a country with what amounts to a diplomatic shrug of their shoulders, completely abdicating its responsibility to the destitute survivors.
Due to pressure by the international community to offset a looming civil war that has yet to materialize, the UN peacekeeping force in Haiti (known as MINUSTAH) has cost the international community an astounding $1.5 billion (20% of that is paid for by the U.S. taxpayers) to “keep peace” since 2004. The thinly-veiled, paternalistic belief that Haiti will disintegrate into some sort of Heart of Darkness-esque chaos —thus putting international donors and private investments at risk —without the benevolent assistance of a foreign occupation is at the heart of the nine-year-old operation.
From this perspective, the UN’s refusal to acknowledge its culpability in the cholera epidemic begins to make sense. Long before the cholera epidemic, the UN has largely ignored repeated allegations of flagrant human rights violations by MINUSTAH troops, including evidence that peacekeepers were committing widespread sexual abuses (such as running an underage prostitution ring and the widely circulated rape of a young man recorded on a cell phone); as well as numerous accusations of firing live ammunition on unarmed civilians. Ironically, no amount of loss of life or violence at the hands of the UN seems to matter in the face of the belief that this intervention is necessary to civilize and protect the poor and colored from their innate brutality and inability to self-govern.
Even the UN’s operational response to the cholera epidemic is a slap in the face to Haiti. Essentially, the UN “launched” a $2.2 billion campaign to eradicate the disease that it had introduced into the country. The Atlantic asserted that if a multinational corporation had done what the UN did in Haiti, “it would be sued for stratospheric amounts of money.” That seems doubtful, as the poor are often stripped of their agency in the face of powerful and unaccountable groups and companies.
The UN's failed response in Haiti is on a continuum of prior interventions throughout history where the lives of poor people of color are seemingly less important than the end goal. Like Iraqis, Afghans, Nigerians, and Native Americans long before them, Haitians have had very little say in their own destiny, and hardly any recognition is given to their most basic right to seek justice. The perception is that what we all gain in the long-run—a society that the West can take credit for “civilizing” —is of greater importance that what ever they may lose in terms of life, dignity, culture, honor, and respect today.
The people of the world's developing nations should not be expected to simply accept anything that befalls them under the guise of the world’s best intentions. When the voiceless and underrepresented speak out, we all have a moral obligation to listen to and acknowledge their humanity. Those benefiting from the help of the international community must be consulted in the kind of assistance they receive, and permitted to reject ‘help’ that does not suit their needs.
Clearly, the UN didn’t deliberately kill the 8,000 Haitians and counting who have succumbed to cholera, but it is also obvious that gross negligence was involved throughout, from the decision not to screen troops from country with an endemic cholera epidemic, to the efforts to cover up the outbreak. For that, a simple ‘sorry’ will not suffice, but it is a place to start and certainly overdue.