Headlines Suggest Ban Ki-moon Apologized for UN Role in Causing Cholera Outbreak–But He Didn’t

Speaking at the UN on Thursday, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon apologized to the Haitian people for not doing more to halt the spread of cholera in the country, but stopped well short of saying the UN was responsible for–or that he was apologizing for–causing the cholera outbreak, which has killed more than 9,000 people.

Mr. Ban opened his speech by saying:

The United Nations deeply regrets the loss of life and suffering caused by the cholera outbreak in Haiti.
On behalf of the United Nations, I want to say very clearly: we apologise to the Haitian people.
We simply did not do enough with regard to the cholera outbreak and its spread in Haiti.
We are profoundly sorry for our role.
This has cast a shadow upon the relationship between the United Nations and the people of Haiti.  It is a blemish on the reputation of UN peacekeeping and the Organization worldwide.

Some kind of apology was highly anticipated, and it marks a change in the UN’s approach from the earliest days of this tragic saga. Haiti had been free of cholera until 2010, when Nepali UN peacekeepers imported the disease and spread it by allowing their waste to contaminate a river. In October, the two of us wrote in Just Security an almost line-by-line annotation of a New York Times story on the UN’s position. For example, the Times reported that the Secretary-General had “acknowledged a ‘moral responsibility’ for the epidemic.” Our  annotation offered a correction. We said:

This is factually inaccurate in a significant respect. The Secretary-General expressed “a moral responsibility to help the Haitian people stem the further spread of this cholera epidemic.” That is very different than acknowledging a moral responsibility for the epidemic.

Remarkably today, again, the NYT story of Dec. 1 repeats the same mistake as before. The Times refers to Mr. Ban “only recently accepting ‘moral responsibility’ for the disease and the suffering that it caused.” As we wrote before, Mr. Ban has not accepted moral responsiblity for the disease. He did not do so in his statement back in August. And he did not do so in his recent report (see para 18). Indeed, if he had done so, there would likely be some noticeably displeased UN Member States.

What about the fact that today Mr. Ban expressed “regret” for the deaths caused by the cholera outbreak? As we wrote in our earlier piece, those words fall short of an apology and acceptance of legal responsibility:

There may actually be no difference between saying “sorry” and expressing “regret.” Neither are key terms of art in international legal practice, and might even be interchangeable. Saying sorry is not necessarily  significant in legal terms. For example, an official can express “sorrow” (and words like, “I am sorry”) for harm caused by a third-party. The important question that close observers want to know is whether the Secretary-General will “apologize” for the UN actions. (emphasis added)

But today, Mr. Ban also said the magic word, “apologize.” So, why isn’t that the acknowledgement that Haitian victims have sought?

First, it is not clear for what exactly Mr. Ban is apologizing. There’s no referent in his sentence. If anything, he seems simply to be apologizing for “not do[ing] enough with regard to the cholera outbreak and its spread.” In other words, the UN is “apologizing” only for not raising more funds for cholera eradication or not providing enough other means of assistance to stop or slow down the spread of cholera after it broke out. That is still far from an apology for causing the outbreak or accepting legal responsibility for it. 

As a result, Mr. Ban’s statement will satisfy some constituents but not others.

The determination not to accept legal responsibility entrenches a scandalous legal maneuver designed to sidestep the UN’s legal obligations,” said Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. Alston criticized the UN’s handling of the epidemic in an internal report that was leaked to the Times in August.

On Thursday, Mr. Alston did acknowledge that “the Secretary-General has finally acted, albeit in his last month in office, after years of stonewalling.” According to Mr. Alston, individual payments for the victims is “still on the table.” For Just Security readers, an important element in this whole affair is the role and future of peacekeeping. In that respect it is worth noting how Mr. Alston frames this issue. On his view, “the credibility of UN peacekeeping and the overall reputation of the UN are at stake if the UN does not manage to compensate the victims.”

[As we noted in our earlier annotation, as a full disclosure: Philip Alston and one of us (Ryan) are faculty directors and co-chairs of NYU Law School’s Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, where Just Security is also housed. That said, Just Security is editorially independent from the Center.]

Meanwhile on Thursday, Reuters reported

“A U.S. federal appeals court upheld the United Nations’ immunity in August after a lawsuit was filed in the United States on behalf of cholera victims.
Deputy U.N. Secretary-General Jan Eliasson told reporters on Thursday that the court decision had allowed Ban to apologize before the end of his term.”

Mr. Eliasson’s remark suggests the court decision opened the door for Mr. Ban to make an apology that related to the UN’s legal responsibility for the epidemic. Well that may be true, but that’s not the door Mr. Ban walked through.

Image: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

 

About the Author(s)

Ryan Goodman

Co-Editor-in-Chief of Just Security, Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Professor of Law at New York University School of Law, former Special Counsel to the General Counsel of the Department of Defense (2015-2016). You can follow him on Twitter @rgoodlaw.

Kate Brannen

Editorial Director of Just Security; nonresident senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council; previously senior reporter covering the Pentagon for Foreign Policy Follow her on Twitter (@K8brannen).