The United Nations says it needs to do "much more" to address its own involvement in the introduction of cholera to Haiti and the suffering of those affected, estimated at more than 770,000 people.
Researchers say there is ample evidence that cholera was introduced to Haiti's biggest river in October 2010 by inadequately treated sewage from a U.N. peacekeeping base. The United Nations has never accepted responsibility, and has answered lawsuits on behalf of victims in U.S. courts by claiming diplomatic immunity.
U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq's statement referring to the U.N.'s "own involvement," which was sent to The Associated Press on Thursday, came a step closer to an admission of at least some responsibility and was welcomed by lawyers for the victims.
"This is a major victory for the thousands of Haitians who have been marching for justice, writing to the U.N. and bringing the U.N. to court," said Mario Joseph, a Haitian human rights attorney whose law firm is leading a high-profile claim on behalf of 5,000 cholera victims who blame the U.N. for introducing the disease.
"It is high time for the UN to make this right and prove to the world that "human rights for all" means for Haitians too," he said.
Haq said in the statement that the United Nations has been considering a series of options, and "a significantly new set of U.N. actions" will be presented publicly within the next two months.
He told reporters later that a U.N.-appointed panel already looked into the U.N.'s involvement. It found that a local contractor failed to properly sanitize the waste at the U.N. base.
"We've been trying to see exactly what we can do about our own particular role as this has been going on" and how "to bring this outbreak to a close," he said.
Haq wouldn't say whether reparations were under consideration.
His statement on U.N. involvement was first reported by the New York Times.
Five U.N. human rights experts criticized the United Nations in a letter to top U.N. officials late last year for its "effective denial of the fundamental right of the victims of cholera to justice."
At least one lawsuit was dismissed because of the U.N.'s diplomatic immunity claim. But a U.S. federal appeals panel in New York is weighing whether the lawsuit that Haitian lawyer Joseph is involved in can proceed, or if the United Nations is entitled to immunity.
Haq reiterated Thursday that the U.N.'s legal position in claiming diplomatic immunity "has not changed."
According to government figures, cholera has sickened more than 770,000 people, or about 7 percent of Haiti's population, and killed more than 9,200. As of March, it was killing an average of 37 people a month.
Haiti is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere and only 24 percent of Haitians have access to a toilet. Sewage is rarely treated and safe water remains inaccessible to many.
At a dusty crossroads on the outskirts of Haiti's capital, local residents gathered Thursday at a trash-clogged stream to wash clothes and bathe.
"So now they are going to find a way to clean the disease from the country? It's been here for years and it seems like it is here to stay," said laborer Jhony Nordlius as he pushed a wheelbarrow past a fetid canal where children were splashing and collecting garbage.
Maxcilus Vale, who ekes out a living shining shoes by the trash-clogged waterway, was more hopeful.
"Maybe now we'll get more sanitation and water treatment to help make cholera go away. I hope so because it has harmed many people," said Vale, as he washed his socks in a roadside pool of stagnant water.
Researchers said cholera was first detected in the central Artibonite Valley and cited evidence that it was introduced to Haiti's biggest river from a U.N. base where Nepalese troops were deployed as part of a peacekeeping operation which has been in the country since 2004. Cholera is endemic in Nepal.
In December 2012, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced a $2.27 billion initiative to help eradicate cholera in Haiti and the neighboring Dominican Republic, which share the island of Hispaniola, but the ambitious 10-year plan is underfunded. According to a report last November, only $307 million has been received.
Haq said the announcement of U.N. plans for new action to address cholera was made in response to a draft report by the U.N. special investigator on extreme poverty and human rights.
Ahead of its release, likely in late September, he said "we wanted to take this opportunity to welcome this vital report."
Haq said its findings and recommendations "will be a valuable contribution to the U.N. as we work towards a significantly new set of U.N. actions."