By: Wesley Laine
A few days ago, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon visited Haiti. It was his first visit to Haiti since the cholera outbreak. During his trip, the Secretary General toured the “Sports for Hope Centre”, a project of the International Olympic Committee. Additionally, in the same sports complex, Mr. Ban inaugurated the newest class of Haitian recruits poised to take their first step toward joining the National Haitian Police (HPN).
During his remarks, the Secretary General emphasized that the Haitian State will have to show the people that it can enforce the law and demonstrate that in a democratic nation, no one – including political authorities and the police themselves – is above the law. The Secretary General’s remarks echo one of the core guiding principles of the United Nations establishment—the rule of law. Or perhaps what it once proudly stood for, prior to the egregious mishandling of the Haitian cholera disaster.
The numbers continue to increase with each passing day, more than 700,000 have gotten sick and over 8,500 Haitians have lost their lives since October of 2010. And despite indisputable evidence that negligence by the United Nations leadership and its peacekeepers are responsible for introducing the vibrio cholera bacterium in Haiti’s largest and most important river, Mr. Ban has refused to own up to his responsibilities as the head of one of the most important international institutions of our age.
The Secretary General, in a very real sense, is entrusted with the power and responsibility to make meaningful the moral force of the world community. For four long years, the people of Haiti have patiently waited for Mr. Ban to acknowledge them as dignified human beings deserving of an apology and compensation for their suffering. So far, Mr. Ban has lacked the courage to recognize the humanity of the Haitian victims and their inalienable right to justice—outlined in the preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Perhaps it is well to ask whether Mr. Ban understands how much the Haitian people have suffered. It appears that the Secretary General is unable to come to terms with his own natural human empathy. On different occasions, he has offered half-hearted words of regret, deferred questions to UN lawyers, and offered to mobilize donor countries to fulfill their pledges for the dysfunctional cholera response plan. On this particular trip to Haiti, the Secretary General spent time playing Ping-Pong inside the new sports complex with the country’s prime minister, avoiding protestors braving the scorching heat to demand accountability and justice.
To deal with the tragic cholera crisis, the UN needs a Secretary General who is willing to look unblinkingly at the circumstances, confront the realities, face the tears of the wounded, and harness all stakeholders to a great collective effort toward justice. Unfortunately, Mr. Ban has shown that he is unfit to be that leader. It is easy to forget now, but this is essentially what happened in past failures, especially at the leadership level, of the United Nations to take bold actions to stop genocides or other wrongful acts. In all these failures, the passage of time should not obscure the facts, lessen responsibility, or turn victims into villains.
The task of strengthening justice lies with all of us, and especially with those who are entrusted with leadership positions. The Secretary General’s failure to lead has damaged the credibility and mandate of the United Nations. Moreover, it has set a terrible precedent for future peacekeeping efforts.
Most of the cholera victims in Haiti are people living in settings of chronic poverty, which are, by definition settings of structural violence. They have suffered enough. Suffering does not ennoble, it embitters. The cholera crisis has destroyed homes, left orphans, and deepened refractory poverty in countless communities. Consequently, the majority of Haitians have called for the departure of the UN troops.
Without an apology and a plan for compensation, it is clear that Mr. Ban’s trip to Haiti, which he called ‘a necessary pilgrimage’, was a photo-op and an attempt to save face. Furthermore, it shows that the Secretary General is out of touch with the plight of the poor and the daily struggle of Haitians to have access to clean water. The empty promises of the Secretary General are not going to stop the lawsuit filed in New York on behalf of the victims.
In Haiti, many may live in poverty, but they are not poor people. They are proud and hard working people. The Secretary General went to Haiti, hoping to trade an apple for an orchard. Mr. Ban, we do not do that in this country. We want justice.
—Wesley Laine is from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and founder of the grassroots nonprofit group Haiti Philanthropy Inc. He is a student at the Sciences Po Law School. He is a recipient of the Davis Peace Prize Fellowship for his project, “Cholera Prevention: Service, Solidarity, and Peace.”