UN: Putting a Value on Haitian Life

How much is Haitian life worth to the UN? Apparently, not even an apology.

On August 6 a unit of the 12,000 member United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) based in the Central Plateau city of Hinche was caught dumping feces and other waste in holes a few meters from a river where people bathe and drink. After complaints by locals and an investigation by journalists, city officials burned the waste near the Guayamouc river. The mayor of Hinche, André Renaud, criticized MINUSTAH’s flagrant disregard for the community’s health and called for the expulsion of some foreign troops.

On August 21 the UN was again accused of improper sewage disposal fifteen kilometers from Hinche.

As is their wont, MINUSTAH officials simply deny dumping sewage. Last Thursday the UN released a statement claiming they had no reason to dump waste since the base in Hinche built a treatment plant and sewage disposal on June 15. “The United Nations Mission for Stabilization in Haiti (MINUSTAH) formally denies being responsible for the dumping of waste in Hinche or elsewhere in the territory of Haiti.”

For anyone who has followed MINUSTAH’s operations this denial rings hollow. Ten months ago reckless sewage disposal at the UN base near Mirebalais caused a devastating cholera outbreak. In October 2010 a new deployment of Nepalese troops brought a disease to Haiti that has left 6,200 dead and more than 438,000 ill.

The back story to this affair is that the waste company managing the base, Sanco Enterprises S.A., disposed the fecal matter from the Nepalese troops in pits that seeped into the Artibonite River. Locals drank from the river, which is how the first Haitians got infected with cholera.

Despite a mountain of evidence collected from local and international researchers, the UN refuses to take responsibility for the cholera outbreak. A November investigation by prominent French epidemiologist, Renaud Piarroux, pointed to the Nepalese troops as the probable origin of the cholera strain, as did a study published by the journal of the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention and an investigation by Nepalese, Danish and Americans researchers at the “Translational Genomics Research Institute” in Arizona. Released last Tuesday, the latter study showed that the genomes of bacteria from Haitian cholera patients were virtually identical with those found in Nepal when the peacekeepers left their country in 2010.

A week ago MINUSTAH spokesperson Vincenzo Pugliesse said the international organization was aware of the new study but maintained that “we follow the recommendations of the report released by the group of experts appointed by the Secretary-General.” That report refused to pinpoint any single source for the cholera outbreak, concluding it was caused by a “confluence of circumstances.”

The debate over cholera’s origin takes places as the disease continues to ravage the country. In June, the beginning of the rainy season, there were a whopping 1800 new cases per day.

Despite the ongoing impact of cholera and widespread anger at MINUSTAH over the issue, the UN’s sewage disposal has been of little interest to the international media. Recently, the weekly Haiti liberté published a picture of a UN vehicle dumping sewage into a river on its front page, but an English-language Google search found no reports in the global press about the criticism towards the international organization’s waste disposal (aside from passing mentions in the leftist San Francisco Bay View and Truthdig).

Media indifference to the UN’s lax health standards is mirrored in the aid world. Supposedly concerned with Haitian well being, the innumerable foreign NGOs working in Haiti have said little about MINUSTAH’s waste disposal and disregard for public health. In fact, when the cholera outbreak began, various international humanitarian organizations belittled those calling for an investigation into its source. A few weeks after the outbreak Médecins sans frontières’ Head of Mission in Port-au-Prince, Stefano Zannini, told Montreal daily La Presse, “Our position is pragmatic: to have learnt the source at the beginning of the epidemic would not have saved more lives. To know today would have no impact either.” For their part, Oxfam criticized those who protested the UN bringing a disease with no recorded history in Haiti. “If the country explodes in violence then we will not be able to reach the people we need to”, an Oxfam spokeswoman, Julie Schindall, told the Guardian after the outbreak.

Rather than support calls for UN accountability, the NGOs jumped to the international organization’s defence. Highly dependent on Western government funding and political support, NGOs are overwhelmingly focused on a charitable model that fails to challenge the political or economic structures that cause the poverty and illness they seek to cure. But without political pressure the practices that engender poverty and illness will continue, a point driven home with the UN’s waste disposal and cholera. Without pressure MINUSTAH will continue to dispose of waste however they see fit.

To right some of what’s wrong MINUSTAH needs to immediately stop dumping sewage without concern for public health. They should also apologize for introducing cholera to Haiti and to make the apology meaningful the UN ought to compensate Haitians by making the country cholera-free through massive investments in the country’s sanitation and sewage systems.

Yves Engler is the author of 12 books. His latest book is Stand on Guard for Whom?: A People's History of the Canadian Military . Read other articles by Yves.