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Will a Similar Tragedy Unfold in the Philippines?

Haiti, Cholera and the UN

by ROGER ANNIS

A very informative and revealing story about the lawsuit against the United Nations over cholera in Haiti was broadcast on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s national evening news program, The World At Six, on November 13. The report began, “The United Nations is among those leading the effort to get aid to the Philippines. But even as it helps out with this natural disaster, it is haunted by the ghosts of another.”

It is the most comprehensive news report to date by the CBC on the Haiti cholera story. The report broke some new ground by looking at the implications worldwide for UN operations as a result of the world body’s conduct in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake, including its stonewalling of the victims of the cholera epidemic. Those implications, says the CBC report, are playing out in the Philippines in the wake of the Typhoon Haiyan tragedy.

Reporter Laura Lynch said the UN’s responsibility for the cholera outbreak in October 2010 is now established beyond dispute. In the broadcast, she speaks to one of the victims who is suing the UN.

She also speaks to former Canadian ambassador to the UN, Stephen Lewis. He says the UN should own up for its conduct and compensate the victims. When asked if that could harm the UN or compromise future UN operations, he replies, “No, I don’t think it would compromise the UN. In fact, I think it would do the UN a lot of good to be seen as principled in the face of having caused so much devastation.”

Lewis says the lawsuit is already affecting UN operations. He cites the fact that the world body has dispatched its top emergency relief official to the Philippines in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan. Valerie Amos is the UN Under-Secretary for Humanitarian Affairs and is now in the Philippines to help lead the relief effort. Lewis told the CBC, “That says to me that they’ve learned from Haiti. That says to me, ‘We made a profound mistake. We didn’t have the … gravitas at the top in Haiti to be able to govern what the Nepalese soldiers did, but, by God, we’re not going to make that mistake again.’”

Lewis pronounced his support to the Haiti cholera lawsuit on CBC’s national newsmagazine program Day 6 on October 12. The suit was presented to a U.S. court in New York City on October 9.

Still, Lynch reports, the UN has so far refused to discuss or negotiate the Haiti case. A staff attorney of one of the legal offices directing the suit, Nicole Phillips of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, tells the broadcast that this could have serious consequences for future UN operations. “Countries won’t want the UN to enter [their territories] and there is going to be a big crisis of relevance and credibility of the UN,” she said. “Unfortunately, we think that is already happening.”

Following the earthquake, the lead humanitarian coordinator of the UN in Haiti was a Canadian, Nigel Fisher. After the cholera epidemic struck in October 2010, Fisher acted as the point man for UN denial. In February of this year, he became the lead civilian official of the UN’s MINUSTAH mission in Haiti on an interim basis. He left his UN posting in Haiti altogether in May.

The cholera outbreak in Haiti has infected more than 690,000 people and the death total is nearly 8,500, and rising. Haiti’s population is nearly ten million.

Roger Annis is a coordinator of the Canada Haiti Action Network.