International affairs can be complicated, but sometimes a case comes along that’s so simple it’s almost absurd. In 2010, the United Nations made a horrendous mistake that, so far, has claimed more than 8,000 lives. Its officials tried to cover it up. When the evidence came out anyway, lawyers for victims’ families petitioned the U.N. to end the crisis, pay damages, and apologize. For a year and a half, the world’s leading humanitarian organization said nothing. Then, last week, it threw out the case, saying, “The claims are not receivable.”
The background should be well-known by now. But despite the fact that American taxpayers have footed the lion’s share of the bill for the U.N. peacekeepers responsible for this disaster—to the tune of roughly $1.5 billion since 2004—the story remains largely unknown in the United States.
The place was Haiti. The mistake: a killer combination of cholera and gross negligence. The peacekeeping mission, known by its French initials, MINUSTAH, had been in country since 2004, when it was authorized to protect an interim government installed after a coup. Six years later—thanks to a healthy dose of mission creep—the peacekeepers were still there. While rotating troops into what was now post-quake Haiti, the U.N. neglected to adequately screen a contingent of soldiers coming from an active cholera outbreak in Nepal. Upon arrival, the soldiers were sent to a rural U.N. base, outside the quake zone and long known for leaking sewage into a major river system that millions of Haitians used to drink, bathe, wash, and farm. Within days of their arrival, people downstream began to die. The epidemic then exploded, sickening more than 647,000 people, and killing in its first year more than twice the number of people who died on 9/11.