Last week, the United Nations Secretary General acknowledged that the UN Peacekeeping Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) was responsible for the cholera outbreak in that country that began in 2010. The admission was a breakthrough in accountability for the UN, which invoked its immunity to avoid legal obligations to the tens of thousands of Haitians who fell victim to the disease after it was introduced on the island by UN peacekeepers deployed after the earthquake. According to the New York Times, the UN’s “…[Y]earslong effort to dodge accountability in an emblematic case of institutional failure was predictable. A string of recent scandals has shown that the United Nations has been unwilling to police itself, learn from its errors, correct course and make amends.”
The editorial cites the human rights abuse scandal in the Central African Republic and the incomprehensibly incompetent and callous way in which the UN responded as evidence that the debacle in Haiti is not an idiosyncratic episode that will now be corrected. It is instead part of a series of institutional failures that expose the inadequacies of accountability measures at the United Nations, including the utter ineffectiveness of the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS).
It shouldn’t have taken five years and a scathing report by an internal human rights watchdog for the United Nations to acknowledge that it bears responsibility for the cholera epidemic in Haiti sparked by its peacekeepers deployed after the 2010 earthquake.
And yet, the yearslong effort to dodge accountability in an emblematic case of institutional failure was predictable. A string of recent scandals has shown that the United Nations has been unwilling to police itself, learn from its errors, correct course and make amends. When a new secretary general takes over next year, she or he should make it a priority to revamp the organization’s oversight entities and create a culture of accountability.
For years, the United Nations asserted that there was no conclusive proof that peacekeepers were the source of an outbreak of cholera that has killed more than 10,000 people. News accounts and experts offered substantial evidence to the contrary. The organization’s denial is one of the main reasons the international community has not mustered an effective response to the epidemic, which spread to other countries. New cases of cholera, which is transmitted through water and food contaminated by sewage, have increased annually since 2014. The country’s wastewater and sanitation systems remain rudimentary.
In a draft report to Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Philip Alston, one of the United Nations’s rapporteurs for human rights, condemned the response as “morally unconscionable, legally indefensible and politically self-defeating.” The report, which was described in an article in The New York Times by Jonathan Katz, said the United Nations “upholds a double standard according to which the U.N. insists that member states respect human rights, while rejecting any such responsibility.”
United Nations auditors found that peacekeepers in Haiti were dumping waste into public canals as of 2014, according to a report that is dated June 30, 2015, but was released publicly only in recent days. The organization has chosen not to publicly disclose an earlier audit, issued in May 2013, that examined waste management at missions, including in Haiti, and made 18 critical recommendations.
Mr. Ban’s office said last week that within two months it would announce a reinvigorated plan to fight Haiti’s cholera epidemic.
The Haiti debacle is reminiscent of the handling of a 2014 sex abuse scandal by French peacekeepers in the Central African Republic. In that case, Anders Kompass, the official who brought the allegations to light, was suspended for leaking the information to French authorities. After news of his suspension caused an international outcry, Mr. Kompass, a veteran United Nations official, was reinstated. Mr. Ban commissioned an independent review that characterized the response by United Nations agencies to the allegations as “seriously flawed.” Mr. Kompass resigned this year, explaining in a statement that he had lost faith in the United Nations, where, he said, “the benefit to the individual of not behaving ethically is perceived as greater than the cost of taking an ethical stance.”
The United Nations’s internal watchdog, the Office of Internal Oversight Services, has been hobbled by institutional and political constraints since it was created in 1994. In its most recent yearly report, which was issued in August 2015, Carman Lapointe, then the head of the office, lamented that efforts to prosecute people who committed fraud had been unsuccessful. She also bemoaned “the frequency with which staff members in the organization avoid responding to allegations of misconduct, and ultimately avoid accountability altogether by taking paid sick leave.”
Investigating misconduct involving peacekeepers will continue to be a challenge because nations that contribute troops demand to have primary oversight over their soldiers. But the next secretary general could set a new tone on accountability by strengthening whistle-blower protection policies and shielding the Office of Internal Oversight Services from the pressures it has traditionally faced from power brokers inside the sprawling bureaucracy.
In the meantime, when Mr. Ban unveils a new plan to curb the spread of cholera in Haiti, he should offer a formal apology, create a mechanism to compensate victims and provide a detailed explanation of why it has taken the United Nations so long to confront inconvenient truths.
The New York Times Editorial Board