The UN Finally Admits Responsibliy in Haiti’s Cholera Outbreak

The United Nations has been forced to admit that its case workers were at least partially responsible for inadvertently causing a cholera outbreak in Haiti after the country’s devastating earthquake in 2010. 

Over the past six years, the UN has strongly denied that it played a role in the epidemic that, according to official figures, has caused over 770,000 cases of cholera with 9,200 attributable deaths — arguably making it the worst cholera epidemic in modern times. And as NPR notes, official figures likely underestimate the true scale of the problem, perhaps dramatically.

The epidemic emerged 10 months after the devastating earthquake in 2010. Experts warned early on that the source of infection appeared to be UN agents who introduced the virus into Haiti’s biggest river due to inadequately treated sewage from a UN compound.

As a result, the UN has faced growing criticism for its failure to acknowledge responsibility. Haitian nationals sued to obtain monetary compensation and a public apology from the organization, but the UN swatted away that suit by claiming, in effect, a form of legal immunity.

In 2015 New York court agreed with the UN and dismissed the lawsuit, but plaintiffs appealed. This past week the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York upheld that dismissal, asserting that the UN retains immunity. 

However, not long after the decision, the UN released a statement promising that the organization would do more to help Haiti fight the cholera outbreak. The New York Times reports:

The deputy spokesman for the secretary general, Farhan Haq, said in an email this week that “over the past year, the U.N. has become convinced that it needs to do much more regarding its own involvement in the initial outbreak and the suffering of those affected by cholera.” He added that a “new response will be presented publicly within the next two months, once it has been fully elaborated, agreed with the Haitian authorities and discussed with member states.”

The statement comes on the heels of a confidential report sent to Mr. Ban by a longtime United Nations adviser on Aug. 8. Written by Philip Alston, a New York University law professor who serves as one of a few dozen experts, known as special rapporteurs, who advise the organization on human rights issues, the draft language stated plainly that the epidemic “would not have broken out but for the actions of the United Nations.”

To be sure, the UN is not admitting total responsibility, nor will it pay out compensation, but the tone shift in the organization’s response is marked. This statement suggests that the agency is starting to hear the high volume of criticism.

There may be more practical applications to this measured response, too. In accepting at least some responsibility — if not for the event itself, then in the clean up — human rights advocates hope that the UN will channel more efforts into cholera elimination strategies.

That means aiding in infrastructure investment, rebuilding, sanitation programs, re-homing initiatives and more. To that end, the UN has said it is “actively working” to deliver a regional assistance package and to help Haiti rebuild.

Of course, this case has a wider importance for many human rights advocates. They point out that despite an initial global focus on Haiti following the 2010 earthquake, interest soon waned – and with it, the recovery relief money that Haiti desperately needs.

There have also been serious questions about how the American Red Cross has — or in this case, hasn’t — spent the nearly half a billion dollars that was donated to aid in rebuilding towns, relaying roads and more.

In spite of these problems, Mario Joseph, a Haitian human rights attorney who sought justice for 5,000 cholera victims, stated, “This is a major victory for the thousands of Haitians who have been marching for justice, writing to the U.N. and bringing the U.N. to court.”

Hopefully, this will be the first major step in obtaining justice for the citizens of Haiti.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.


Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus1 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

william Miller
william M1 years ago


Marie W.
Marie W1 years ago

Do a comparison of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Same Island- 2 different worlds. Haiti makes most of its problems itself.

heather g.
heather g1 years ago

After an earthquake, volunteers would normally build a new sewage system. It reflects very poorly on the UN. Volunteers probably weren't properly trained...

Janet B.
Janet B1 years ago


Sammy Bryant
Samantha Bryant1 years ago

WHAT!? Oh this is just awful! Thank you for the article this is so important. Prayers for Haiti

Janet B.
Janet B1 years ago


Teresa Antela
Teresa A1 years ago

Maxine Stopfer I agree with you

Marija Mohoric
Marija M1 years ago

Jen S. - I definitely agree with you.

Maxine Stopfer
Maxine Stopfer1 years ago

What a sad article. The UN needs to step up and use their resources to right a wrong. Nothing will ever bring those people back but knowing that this will never happen again would be a start. How can they sleep at night knowing they are the cause of all of deaths. Disgusting.