A panel of independent U.N. experts who investigated the source of a deadly cholera epidemic that killed thousands of Haitians has concluded that United Nations peacekeepers from Nepal "most likely" introduced the strain into the Haitian population.
The panel's findings mark a dramatic retreat from their earlier, 2011 finding that found it impossible to assign responsibility for the strain's origins; the evidence was incomplete evidence, they said at the time, and too many things -- inadequate water, lousy sanitation -- contributed to the 2010 epidemic's spread.
The latest findings will increase pressure on the United Nations to acknowledge responsibility for introducing cholera into the country. In February, the United Nations invoked diplomatic immunity in dodging legal responsibility for paying compensation to victims and their families. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and his top advisors specifically invoked the panel's earlier, ambivalent findings in arguing that the U.N. bore no legal responsibility for the epidemic.
But now the four scientists -- Alejandro Cravioto, Daniele Lantagne, G. Balakrish Nair, Claudio F. Lanata -- who wrote the original report say that new evidence that has come to light in the past two years. While not conclusive, that evidence has strengthened the case against the United Nations.
The experts -- who no longer work for the United Nations -- also defended their initial findings, saying the "majority of evidence" at the time was "circumstantial." They added, that the "current strain Nepal strain of cholera was not available for molecular analysis" at the time.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
For nearly two and a half years, the United Nations has sought to skirt responsibility for a ravenous Haitian cholera epidemic that killed at least 8,000 Haitians -- and sickened several hundred thousand more -- since the first outbreak was detected in October 2010, downriver from a sewage outlet used by a contingent of Nepalese blue helmets.
Today, Ban Ki-moon phoned Haitian president Michel Martelly to inform him that the United Nations has no intention, or legal obligation, to pay compensation to the families of Haiti's cholera victims.
"In November 2011, a claim for compensation was brought against the United Nations on behalf of the victims of the cholera outbreak in Haiti," Ban's spokesman Martin Nesirky told reporters on Thursday. "Today, the United Nations advised the claimants representatives that the claims are no receivable pursuant to section 29 of the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations."
Nesirky highlighted the U.N.'s role in trying to contain the spread of cholera, saying it has worked closely with Haitians "to provide treatment, improve water and sanitation facilities and strengthen prevention and early warning."
"The secretary general expresses his profound sympathy for the terrible suffering caused by the cholera epidemic, and calls on all partners in Haiti and the international community to work together to ensure better health and a better future for the people of Haiti," Nesirky said.
The Boston-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti filed the claim on behalf of the families of 5,000 victims, and is preparing claims on behalf of thousands more. Brian Concannon, the director of the organization, told Turtle Bay that the U.N. should be held liable for "negligent failure" to screen peacekeepers from a country known to have cholera and for the "reckless disposal of waste into Haiti's largest water system."
Concannon said that while the United Nations has signed a status of forces agreement with Haiti that shields it from suits brought by Haitian courts, the global body has an obligation to provide "an alternative mechanism" for victims to seek redress. His group is now preparing to pursue a case in a national court -- either within Haiti, the United States, the Netherlands, or Belgium -- to persuade a judge not to enforce the immunity agreement on the grounds that the United Nations has not lived up to "its side of the bargain."
"It's round two," he said.
The United Nations peacekeeping department has long maintained that a series of studies failed to present irrefutable evidence that U.N. peacekeepers were responsible for the outbreak. They argued that it would be more productive to invest the U.N.'s resources into trying to contain the spread of the disease rather than determining who was responsible for introducing cholera into Haiti for the first time in more than 100 years.
Following protests from Haitians, Ban commissioned a panel of independent medical experts to "investigate and seek to determine the source of the 2010 cholera outbreak in Haiti." The four-member team, headed by Dr. Alejandro Cravioto, head of the International Center for Diarrheal Disease Research in Dhaka, Bangladesh, provided strong circumstantial evidence hinting at a U.N. role but stopped just short of pinning the blame on the Nepalese peacekeepers.
The panel concluded, as Turtle Bay reported at the time, "that the disease was introduced into the Haitian population by human activity in the Meye Tributary, a branch of the Artibonite River, and quickly spread throughout the river delta, infecting thousands of Haitians along the way. At the time, Nepalese peacekeepers were stationed at a camp in Mierbalais, along the banks of the Meye, fueling suspicion that the waste of an infected peacekeeper had flowed into the river."
But the panel argued that the other forces contributing to the spread of the disease -- poor sanitation and a dysfunctional health care system -- were so varied as to make it impossible to identify a specific culprit. "The independent panel concludes that the Haiti cholera outbreak was caused by the confluence of circumstances as described above, and was not the fault of, or deliberate action of, a group or individual," read the report.
A U.S. cholera expert at Tufts Univeristy, Daniele Lantagne, who was a member of the U.N. panel, told the BBC last October that further scientific evidence pointed more conclusively towards the Nepalese peacekeepers. She said it is "most likely" that they were the source of the outbreak.
Jonathan Katz, a former Associated Press reporter who covered the cholera outbreak, said the U.N. has "spent the last year and change saying" they can't talk about the cholera epidemic because the claims case was pending. But now, he said, the U.N. maintains that it won't even consider the claim.
Katz, who authored the recent book on the Haiti relief effort, The Big Truck that Went By, said U.N.'s refusal to confront responsibility reflects a deeper concern that establishing precedent could open the door to a slew of lawsuits against the United Nations around the world.
"The United Nations is concerned about the precedent this would set for U.N. peacekeeping and the other work they do around the world," he said. "I can imagine a long line of people going around the world that would love to go after the United Nations."
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
Haiti: U.N. Cholera Probe
The United Nations will establish an "independent" panel to try to determine the source of the cholera epidemic in Haiti, Bloomberg reported. The U.N. has resisted such a probe, arguing that it is more important to focuses resources on preventing the spread of cholera, which has already killed more than 2,000 people and hospitalized more than 44,000. But the organization has faced criticism that it is seeking to cover up possible links to a Nepalese battalion of U.N. peacekeepers.
The United States, France and African governments have warned Ivory Coast's long time ruler, Laurent Gbagbo, that he must step down from power within days or face stiff sanctions, Reuters reported. Western and African governments believe that opposition leader Alassane Ouattara won the country's recent election. The ultimatum comes as government and rebel forces clashed today.
President Barack Obama on Thursday reversed course and endorsed the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, which recognizes the cultural and property rights of native Americans and other indigenous communities, the Associated Press reported. The U.S. voted against the declaration when the U.N. General Assembly adopted it in 2007, arguing that it was incompatible with U.S. laws.
The U.N. Security Council met to register their concern about the prospects for violence in the upcoming independence referendum in South Sudan, according to the Voice of America, while the U.N.'s top peacekeeping official, Alain Le Roy, said that the U.N. peacekeeping force would not be enough to protect civilians in the event of a resumption of civil war.
The White House today announced that Brooke Anderson, the U.N.-based U.S. ambassador for special political affairs, will serve as new chief of staff for the national security council.
Anderson previously worked as the chief of staff for Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, before being promoted to the U.N. ambassadorial post, which bears responsibility for Security Council affairs, U.N. peacekeeping and non-proliferation matters.
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.