United Nations Secretary Ban Ki-moon has ended—sort of– six years of UN stonewalling over Haiti’s mammoth cholera epidemic with a weak apology that the world organization “simply did not do enough”  about the epidemic, without mentioning  that UN peacekeepers brought the deadly disease to the hemisphere’s poorest country in the first place.

Ban’s statement Thursday to the UN General Assembly  declared that “we are profoundly sorry for our role,” without going into the specifics of what that role actually was.

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It was nonetheless touted by other UN officials as “an important day for the UN,” that also is supposed to mark the start of a new approach to the cholera catastrophe that would include “material assistance and support for those Haitians most directly affected by cholera”—as soon as U.N. member states come up with the money for it.

Just what form that support might take—Ban also carefully avoided calling it compensation—is far from clear.

The UN is calling for member states to pony up some $200 million over the next two years for that part of its new approach, which is largely intended, at least so far, to be aimed at communities rather than individuals harmed by the health disaster.

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“Cholera has been crushing in so many ways, and it is promising that victims will now have an opportunity to weigh in on how this assistance can best be provided.”

– Beatrice Lindstrom

In his remarks, Ban acknowledged that “some have urged that the package also include an individual component, such as the payment of money to the families of those who died of cholera.” But that posed problems over “identification of the deceased individuals and their family members,” not to mention “the certainty of sufficient funding” to provide meaningful compensation.

Ban fell back on a familiar UN mantra on that topic: “additional evaluation is needed.” 

The UN also wants another $200 million over two years for cholera eradication and improved sanitation and water supplies for Haiti, though that effort is likely to extend for ten to 15 years overall.

Ban’s statement was described to Fox News as a “classic fudge” by a legal expert and UN special rapporteur on human rights, Philip Alston, who last month sharply castigated the UN in a formal report for failing to accept legal responsibility for the deadly outbreak, which has sickened some 753,000 people and killed at least 9,300, including at least 330 this year.

In his report, Alston noted that UN legal authorities have argued internally—without ever producing a public legal opinion– against any direct admission of responsibility and any compensation for harm done, as a potential breach in the UN’s legal immunities. 

Alston called that “morally unconscionable, legally indefensible and politically self-defeating,” and argued that compensation could be provided without undermining UN immunities.

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In a statement after Ban’s General Assembly remarks, he underlined that the Secretary General’s  position continues to entrench “a scandalous legal maneuver designed to sidestep the U.N.’s legal obligations,” and makes fund-raising for the new effort “a charitable operation, rather than one that is required,” raising the possibility that it would remain underfunded.

Ban’s  statement, however,  was “welcomed”  as a “meaningful symbol of atonement” by Isobel Coleman, the U.S. ambassador for management and reform who was in the General Assembly when the Secretary General spoke. 

Coleman pointed out that the U.S. has already contributed more than $100 million for cholera treatment and prevention in Haiti, and pointedly added that “not a single one of the cases should have occurred.”

The statement was also welcomed by the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, a U.S. advocacy group, and its sister organization in Haiti, which have carried on the legal battle to get compensation for Haitian cholera victims. Even though compensation is still not at hand, they called the U.N.’s new approach “a crucial step toward justice for the Haitian people.”

Ban’s statement, they noted, was carried on national television in Haiti, and greeted with applause in their own offices. 

But compensation, the groups noted, was still required. “Our clients have lost breadwinners and gone into debt to pay for funeral costs,” Beatrice Lindstrom, an IJDH attorney, said in a statement.

“Cholera has been crushing in so many ways, and it is promising that victims will now have an opportunity to weigh in on how this assistance can best be provided.”

For her part, Coleman said that the U.S. was looking for “greater clarity” on the new UN approach so that “member states can take sound financial decisions that will result in tangible benefits for the people of Haiti and the credibility of the United Nations.”

Greater clarity still seems some distance away, as Ban told the General Assembly that the UN’s lack of effort on cholera was “a blemish on the reputation of UN peacekeeping and the organization world-wide.”

In fact, the cholera blemish hardly ended there, but deepened as a result of the UN’s long stonewalling  and other aspects of its behavior.

A fast-growing wave of medical opinion quickly pointed to the cause of the initial cholera eruption in October 2010—soon to become the worst in the world—as bad camp hygiene of UN peacekeepers from Nepal who had been exposed to the disease at home, coupled with a contractor’s  dumping of a full truckload of infected human waste from the camp into Haiti’s vitally important Artibonite River.

But even while Ban apologized, the UN continued to reference a 2011 study by a hand-picked group of experts, some of whom have subsequently changed their opinion, that pointed to the Nepalese as the cholera source but said the outbreak “was not the fault of, or deliberate action of, a group or individuals.”

Ban himself eventually invoked U.N. immunities in 2013 as Haitians began to band together to sue the international organization for compensation. The U.S. backed the U.N.’s immunity claim, which was upheld in a U.S. federal appeals court in August 2016.

UN officials at a press conference before Ban’s apology said that judicial affirmation of UN immunities played an important role in the timing of their new approach, a view that legal expert Alston’s report essentially refutes.

But meantime, the UN was apparently doing little or nothing to fundamentally change the bad hygiene practices in its peacekeeping camps—in Haiti or elsewhere around the world.

A long-suppressed UN audit of Haiti peacekeepers, reported on by Fox News last August, found that in 2014 and 2015, at the very least, they were still dumping sewage wastewater into Haitian public canals, ignoring laboratory warnings of fecal contamination of wastewater, and failing to maintain water treatment plants, among many other things.

Additional audit reports found similar unhygienic practices among peacekeepers in a half-dozen other conflict zones around the world.

In a document outlining its “new approach,” the UN refers to those audits in a single sentence that says only that they “highlighted challenges in several areas,” before saying that 39 “critical” and “important” recommendations to clean up those messes had been “implemented on the ground” by October 2016.

Two days before Ban spoke at the General Assembly, the UN’s peacekeeping field support service also announced a new, six-year strategy to “improve environmental management,” including the waste and wastewater conditions.

Whatever it accomplishes in humanitarian terms, Ban’s apology had some bureaucratic impact—especially for his designated successor,  Antonio Guterres, who takes over in January.

By making his muted admission, Ban spares Guterres from having to deal with the same degree of festering erosion of U.N. credibility, at least on this issue, which he would otherwise inherit. 

On the other hand, Guterres still inherits responsibility for the actual clean-up of the cholera calamity, including the still-unresolved funding and implementation  issues left by the departing  Secretary General’s very murky new approach, plus  the black hole of U.N. legal responsibility for any disasters—past, present and future—that the world organization  creates. 

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