Mission One for U.N. in Haiti: When helping others, please try not to kill them

Few countries in the world face the absolutely dire conditions encountered in Haiti, a country I spent a lot of time in during the 1990s. I didn’t need to go there after the massive 7.0 earthquake in 2010 to surmise that Haiti had gone from abject misery to abominably unimaginable catastrophic misery. It was like a patient who had experienced massive heart failure and was en route to the hospital by ambulance, and the ambulance was broadsided by a freight train. What’s the doctor’s primary responsibility in such a situation? First and foremost: do no harm.

The United Nations in this case was the doctor. It dispatched peacekeepers to assist in recovery efforts and help maintain order amid growing chaos and desperation. Instead, according to a new Yale University study, U.N. troops brought with them a strain of cholera from Nepal and, because of bad hygienic conditions at their camp, unleashed it on the Haitian population. A subsequent epidemic killed 8,100 people and sickened an estimated 650,000. It continues to spread today.

It would not be that startling for cholera to break out in a country like Haiti, where conditions during the best of times can be filthy beyond imagination. I’m talking about urban rivers that are heavy with trash and sewage, fed by canals of raw sewage that run directly from people’s houses. I write this not to denigrate the Haitian people, because they do the best with what they’ve got, but rather to acknowledge that it wouldn’t be outlandish to think of cholera as a natural consequence of the dire, unsanitary conditions that existed after the earthquake and subsequent hurricane that struck Haiti in 2010. That said, Haiti had not had a cholera outbreak in over a century.

Researchers from the Yale School of Law and School of Public Health traced this particular cholera strain to its source and established that it was not indigenous to Haiti. In fact, it came from Nepal. Nepalese troops serving with the U.N. MINUSTAH mission in Haiti established a base at Meye after the 2010 earthquake, and Meye is exactly where the cholera outbreak started. The troops apparently carried the strain with them, and the camp they established included improperly constructed latrines that allowed the troops’ feces to drain into a tributary of the Artibonite River during flooding from a major storm. The report states:

“The camp’s waste infrastructure was haphazardly constructed, allowing for waste from the camp’s drainage canal and an open drainage ditch to flow directly into the nearby Méyè Tributary. The drainage sites were also susceptible to flooding and overflow into the tributary during rainfall. Direct evidence that sewage from the base contaminated the
Méyè Tributary of the Artibonite River exists. On October 27 [2010], journalists caught MINUSTAH troops on tape trying to contain what appeared to be a sewage spill at the MINUSTAH base. Families in the area also confirmed that waste from the camp frequently flowed into the river. Most of the initial cholera patients reported drinking water from the
Artibonite River.”

What’s interesting is that, when Yale officials presented their findings to the United Nations, the response was one of complete, utter denial. The U.N. will not accept any responsibility despite overwhelming evidence that its mission was responsible for a massive, deadly outbreak.

This isn’t the first time. U.N. “peacekeeping” missions have gone badly awry in the past, including a major scandal involving 100 Sri Lankan troops deployed to Haiti in 2007 who were later withdrawn amid allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse.

Recall the major scandal in 1999 when American Kathryn Bolkovac signed up with Dyncorp for a stint as a U.N. police contractor in Bosnia, only to uncover a major kidnapping and human-trafficking operation supported by the very U.N. forces who were there to enforce law and order. A film about Bolkovac’s experiences, The Whistleblower, is well worth watching if you want to see how expertly the U.N. and private-contracting services expertly deny, evade and redirect responsibility for criminal actions that occur on their watch.


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