UN peacekeeping's very bad week

ABC News has a devastating report out this morning on the mountain of evidence that United Nations peacekeepers brought a virulent strain of cholera to Haiti:

The vicious form of cholera has already killed 7,000 people in Haiti, where it surfaced in a remote village in October 2010. Leading researchers from Harvard Medical School and elsewhere told ABC News that, despite UN denials, there is now a mountain of evidence suggesting the strain originated in Nepal, and was carried to Haiti by Nepalese soldiers who came to Haiti to serve as UN peacekeepers after the earthquake that ravaged the country on Jan. 12, 2010 -- two years ago today. Haiti had never seen a case of cholera until the arrival of the peacekeepers, who allegedly failed to maintain sanitary conditions at their base.

The importation of cholera was a tragedy that has cost thousands of lives.  The poor sanitary conditions at the UN peacekeeping base where the cholera likely spread was evidence of serious operational negligence. The UN response--from initial claims not to be interested in the cholera's origins to today's tortured equivocations--has been political malfeasance. A smarter approach would have been to aggressively pursue the charges once they appeared; instead, the UN is being dragged kicking and screaming to an admission of culpability.

Nor is the new cholera evidence the only bad news for UN peacekeeping this month. It was also reported that a UN peacekeeper accused of sexual abuse in Haiti has been released in his native Uruguay (although further legal proceedings against him appear possible). As Mark Goldberg notes here, that case points to a broader gap in accountability for the misdeeds of peacekeepers.

Unfortunately, revelations like these tend to produce a polarized response, particularly in an election year. Those supportive of the UN and its work often tend to minimize the problems out of fear that highlighting them will give ammunition to critics. Meanwhile, those hostile to the organization seize on problems as fresh evidence of the organization's incompetence, or worse. The debate remains stuck at an absurd level of abstraction: is UN peacekeeping worthwhile or not? The truth is that UN peacekeeping is both valuable and beset with serious problems. The organization's friends do it no favors by denying that.  


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