This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

U.N. Witness: Half an apology

On Dec. 1, the staff of the Mennonite Central Committee United Nations Office awaited the commencement of Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s address to the people of Haiti. After more than six years of advocacy efforts, we eagerly anticipated an apology for bringing cholera to the region.

Kati Garrison

In October 2010, only nine months after an earthquake devastated the capitol area of Haiti, a cholera outbreak hit the country. Since then, this disease, which formerly had no record in Haiti, has killed more than 9,300 Haitians and sickened more than 753,000.

A panel of experts reported that cholera emerged from bacterial contamination of the Meye Tributary System near the base of U.N. peacekeepers who “routinely disposed of untreated fecal waste in unprotected, open air pits . . . that caused a serious risk of overflow.”

Over the past six years, the MCC U.N. office has called for justice for Haiti’s cholera victims. Direct communication with MCC staff in Haiti guided these endeavors. Through collaboration with strong partners, such as the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, we have pursued multiple avenues to a comprehensive response.

These activities include holding an interfaith vigil in remembrance of those affected by cholera, multiple meetings with the High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations, discussions with the Independent Expert on Human Rights in Haiti, talks with representatives from the United Nations Development Programme and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, and pressing candidates for the next secretary general on what the U.N. will do to more fully address cholera in Haiti. We also participated in the Face-Justice campaign, which urged the U.N. to accept responsibility by sharing victims’ calls for justice. These actions culminated in our annual student seminar.

Our staff listened intently as Ban Ki-moon delivered his apology. He expressed regret for how the U.N. responded to the cholera crisis.

“On behalf of the United Nations, I want to say very clearly: we apologize to the Haitian people,” he said. “We simply did not do enough with regard to the cholera outbreak and its spread in Haiti. We are profoundly sorry for our role.”

Ban Ki-moon took the opportunity to outline the U.N.’s new approach to cholera in Haiti. He presented a plan that focuses on reducing the incidence of cholera through water and sanitation infrastructure improvements and access to health care. A second track provides material assistance and support to those directly affected by the epidemic.

The apology was historic. Such admissions are rare within the U.N. context. However, it only serves as an initial step in the right direction. To MCC staff and to U.N. special rapporteur Phillip Alston, who dedicated considerable effort to keeping cholera accountability on the U.N.’s agenda, this address qualifies as a half apology. The secretary general failed to admit the U.N.’s responsibility for causing the outbreak.

We have much work yet to complete.

“Eliminating cholera from Haiti, and living up to our moral responsibility to those who have been most directly affected, will require the full commitment of the international community,” Ban Ki-moon said. “. . . But words cannot replace action and material support.”

The journey is long, but MCC and its partners are committed to justice. We will continue to monitor the cholera response, and the new plan, to advocate for the rights of victims and survivors.

Kati Garrison is program and advocacy associate in the Mennonite Central Committee United Nations Office.

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