March 2, 2013
If a multinational corporation behaved the way the U.N. did in Haiti, it would be sued for stratospheric amounts of money. And that’s just for starters: Were Unilever or Coca-Cola responsible for a cholera outbreak that killed 8,000 people and infected 640,000 more, and for subsequently covering up its employees’ failure to adhere to basic sanitation standards, it is likely their executives would have difficulty visiting countries claiming universal legal jurisdiction. They would have to contend with Interpol red notices, along with the occasional cream pie attack. And the companies themselves would go into damage control mode, akin to BP’s post-oil-spill public relations blitz, or Wal-Mart’s pivot toward promoting American-made products. They’d acknowledge the need to convince skeptical consumers that their corporate behavior had changed.
The U.N. and its leadership won’t have to worry about any of this. But maybe it should.
As award-winning journalist Jonathan Katz established in a bombshell chapter of his recent book, The Big Truck That Went By, a base for Nepalese U.N. peacekeepers next to the Artibonite River was the origin of the cholera epidemic that swept through Haiti in October of 2010. There had been no reported cases of cholera in Haiti for a century; now, the disease is endemic, and it is projected to kill as many as 1,000 people a year until it is eradicated, according to Brian Concannon, director of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti and a lawyer representing Haitian claimants against the U.N. Former president Bill Clinton, the U.N.’s special envoy for Haiti, has admitted that U.N. peacekeepers were responsible for the outbreak. But Katz, the AP’s Haiti correspondent in the years after the country’s devastating 2010 earthquake, was at the receiving end of a bungled U.N. cover-up of the epidemic’s cause. The World Body actively discouraged and even impeded journalists and public health investigators attempting to trace the causes of the pestilence. The U.N. never admitted responsibility, even as a U.N. commissioned-report left little room for doubt (the entire saga is recounted in Katz’s chapter, which should be read in full).