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Ban Ki-moon's UN legacy clouded by cholera

Aid workers with ACTED cross a river during a cholera response mission. Les Cayes, Haiti. (November 2013) Nancy Palus/IRIN
Aid workers with ACTED cross a river during a cholera response mission. Les Cayes, Haiti. (November 2013)

Nearly a month after UN officials announced the idea of a special $400 million package to deal with cholera in Haiti, almost no donors have agreed to fund assistance for its victims. UN peacekeepers imported the disease from Nepal to the Caribbean nation in October 2010. Cholera has since killed 9,100 Haitians and the UN has only recently started to acknowledge its responsibility.

The idea of a package of "material assistance" for victims and survivors was floated by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon after the publication of a searing report on the crisis by a human rights advisor. Philip Alston, a professor of Law at New York University and the UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, called the organisation’s years of denials that it brought cholera to Haiti "a disgrace”.

However the aid package itself is not off to a promising start: "It is really hard to advance this plan for material assistance without having some certainty that there will be money," said Ban’s Haiti cholera point man David Nabarro. "At the same time it is hard to have certainty that there will be money without clarity on what the actual material assistance might look like."

After Alston’s report was leaked to The New York Times in August, Ban’s office for the first time conceded that the UN had a "moral responsibility" to provide "material assistance" in response to the cholera outbreak, but stopped short of admitting responsibility or apologising.

Citing existing mechanisms for the UN to settle claims of negligence while maintaining its immunity, Alston said the "new policy remains critically incomplete" without a formal confession and apology. Ban is losing time to make amends before he leaves the job at the end of the year.

A tarnished legacy

"Ban's failings in Haiti are one of the worst stains on his legacy, and the clock is running down on his chance to make it right," said Beatrice Lindstrom, staff attorney at IJDH, a legal group that has filed claims on behalf of cholera victims. "Ban must issue a public apology to the people of Haiti, and follow through on his promise of a ‘new response’ with real action."

Alston wrote in his report, "the lamentably self-serving legal contortions devised to escape any form of legal responsibility still remain in place… Unless the new process also involves a reconsideration in this regard, the [UN’s] ability to salvage its moral, let alone its legal, credibility and authority will be gravely undermined."

The office of the secretary-general did not respond when asked if Ban would apologise and take legal responsibility in a speech to the General Assembly on 1 December.

Nabarro, appointed to oversee cholera relief operations in Haiti, says the terms and breakdown of funding of the “material assistance” plan are still being determined. Nabarro, who headed the UN’s Ebola response in West Africa, has met extensively with member states, but says the overall response to multiple Haiti appeals is lacklustre. Hurricane Matthew, which struck on 4 October, has increased humanitarian needs and sparked a rise in cholera cases.

As of late October, UN member states have pledged to contribute just 18 percent of a $2.1 billion national plan to eliminate cholera up until 2022; the more general 2016 Humanitarian Response Plan for Haiti is only 33 percent funded; and a $119.9 million flash appeal in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew, which Nabarro says is currently the most pressing need, is also less than half funded.

A two-track plan

The new package is expected to be split into two $200 million "tracks" – one aimed at eradicating cholera and funding sanitation improvements, and another to provide what has been termed "material assistance" for victims or communities, though the specifics are still hazy (Nabarro said he did not want to raise expectations in Haiti by offering hypothetical details).

UN officials have taken pains to avoid characterising this tranche of funding as compensation – something critics and lawyers for victims say only adds another layer to the UN’s convoluted handling of its legal position on the crisis.

Nabarro said that just one member state had agreed to earmark donations towards material assistance specifically. Other donors are more willing to fund the overall cholera response, or track one, but appear to be steering clear of the more politicised second tranche.

"There’s quite a lot of pressure on us officials to have a concept for the material support package... with sufficient clarity for us to engage with member states so that they can decide how they want to deal with it," Nabarro said in an interview with IRIN.

One scenario, Nabarro surmised, could be to fund the material assistance through assessed contributions (UN member states’ obligatory dues). But some countries have balked at that, concerned they could be on the hook for other serious negligence attributed to the UN. Critics, including Alston, say that fear is either misguided or, should such claims exist, is something the UN needs to bring out into the open.

"This is the moment of truth for the UN's leadership, but it's also a moment of truth for the UN's member states," said Lindstrom of IJDH, which filed claims with the UN on behalf of 5,000  cholera victims, as well as a class action lawsuit against the UN in the US federal court. "If they're not ultimately willing to step forward and invest in a just response, then the promise of a more accountable UN rings hollow."

In August, a US federal appeals court upheld that the UN was not subject to lawsuits in the US. Lindstrom said that this week an extension had been granted allowing the plaintiffs in the case until 17 January to file with the US Supreme Court. In the meantime, she said they would continue pressuring the UN to act on its own.

(TOP PHOTO: Aid workers on a cholera response mission, Haiti, 2013. Nancy Palus/IRIN)


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