Haiti's Cholera Outbreak Tied To Nepalese U.N. Peacekeepers

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More than 100 years after the eradication of cholera in the island nation of Haiti, the disease has reemerged with a vengeance. A new study out of Yale University traces the outbreak back to an infected Nepalese disaster response team, dispatched by the UN in the aftermath of Haiti's massive 2010 earthquake. Robert Siegel speaks with the study supervisor, Muneer Ahmad.


What if someone with the best of intentions comes to your home, assists you in a moment of great need and inadvertently contaminates your house with deadly bacteria that sicken and kill one of your children? Well, that, according to a Yale University study, is effectively what U.N. peacekeepers from Nepal did to Haiti where they were dispatched after the 2010 earthquake.

The study, by students at Yale Law School and the Yale School of Public Health, traces the Haitian outbreak of cholera to the Nepalese troops, and it urges the U.N. to assume responsibility for the epidemic. Joining us is Muneer Ahmad who is clinical professor of law at Yale and was the faculty supervisor of the report "Peacekeeping without Accountability." Welcome.

MUNEER AHMAD: Thank you. It's good to be with you.

SIEGEL: This is an outbreak that, as the study reports, has killed 8,000 people and sickened another 600,000 people. How certain, first, is the link to the peacekeepers from Nepal?

AHMAD: Well, there have been a series of studies that started very soon after the epidemic began in the middle of October of 2010 and have continued for years since. Those studies show that the outbreak of cholera in October happened in an area that encompassed a U.N. peacekeeping base where the Nepalese troops were stationed. Molecular and genetic studies show a very close match of the strain of cholera that was found in October of 2010 in Haiti to South Asian strains that were prevalent in Nepal. And finally, there are studies that show that there had been a major outbreak of cholera in Nepal from July to August of 2010.

SIEGEL: Now, we should say here, according to the report, the way in which this bacteria traveled from the Nepalese troops into the water supply of Haiti has to do in part with the Nepalese troops carrying cholera but also the complete lack of sanitation facilities in Haiti.

AHMAD: Well, that's right, although I would - I think there was another intervening event, which was the negligent and haphazard sanitation facilities within the U.N. base itself. And that, in fact, is the immediate cause.

The U.N. base is built just on the border of a tributary to the Artibonite River, which is the biggest river in Haiti. It's the Mississippi of Haiti. And what a U.N. expert panel itself showed was that the construction of sanitation and water pipes was haphazard - in their words - which led to the contamination of the tributary by human waste flowing out of the U.N. base.

SIEGEL: A U.N. statement today in response to the report again reiterates that the U.N. is doing all it can to combat cholera in Haiti. In the past, the U.N. has cited the Convention on Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations to say that Haitians cannot bring claims for reparations against the world body. What more should they do?

AHMAD: I think as a fundamental matter, the U.N. needs to accept responsibility for being a very direct proximate cause to an epidemic which has taken thousands of lives, sickened hundreds of thousands and will take, by most estimates, at least a decade to eliminate. When one talks to people in Haiti about the epidemic, the common knowledge is that it was caused by the U.N. Graffiti around Port-au-Prince reflects that. But the U.N. has never taken responsibility for it.

The report recommends that the U.N. establish a claims commission that would provide a forum to bring claims against the United Nations. And that's a claims commission that the U.N. itself promised to provide but, in fact, never has done so.

SIEGEL: This was a mission to Haiti after the earthquake. How do you answer the argument that if, in fact, you attach liability to the United Stations for this, you make it even more difficult to dispatch peacekeepers to dangerous and precarious situations?

AHMAD: What the report calls for is really only that the U.N. abide by what it already agreed to, which is to provide a forum for people to be heard. There is a way to calibrate a system of remediation without it making peacekeeping impossible.

SIEGEL: But aren't you asking for more than just a hearing? Aren't you saying people should be compensated for the damages suffered?

AHMAD: Yes. People should be compensated for the damages. The basic idea that if injury is done negligently, even by well-intentioned people as the U.N. peacekeeping operation no doubt was, there has to be some remedy that's available for people who are injured, people who lost their lives.

SIEGEL: Professor Ahmad, thank you very much for talking with us.

AHMAD: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's Muneer Ahmad, who is clinical professor of law at Yale University. He was faculty supervisor of a study by Yale Law School and School of Public Health students about peacekeeping and cholera in Haiti.

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