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By Jacqueline Charles, The Miami Herald

UNITED NATIONS — In his strongest statement since a deadly cholera epidemic arrived in Haiti nearly four years ago, the head of the United Nations said the global body bears “a moral responsibility” in helping the Caribbean nation end the outbreak.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon made the declaration in an interview as he prepared to visit Haiti, where he will travel to the region where the contamination happened and meet with families hard hit by cholera. Detected 10 months after Haiti’s Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake, the waterborne disease has killed more than 8,500 people and infected 704,000.

Since then, the United Nations has refused to admit responsibility for cholera, which scientific evidence and its own independent panel of experts suggest was brought to Haiti by Nepalese troops stationed at a military base in the Central Plateau region.

Nor has the U.N. offered an apology, which victims and their families are seeking, along with compensation, in three different lawsuits filed in U.S. courts.

“Regardless of what the legal implication may be, as the secretary-general of the United Nations and as a person, I feel very sad,” Ban said. “I believe that the international community, including the United Nations, has a moral responsibility to help the Haitian people stem the further spread of this cholera epidemic.”

Haitian Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe called on the U.N. last fall to take “moral responsibility” for cholera, and after the U.N.’s independent human rights expert on Haiti earlier this year demanded “full compensation” for cholera victims. In the Feb. 7 report, Gustavo Gallon criticized the silence while publicly disagreeing with the U.N., which has rejected compensation and invoked immunity in the legal cases.

“The diplomatic difficulties surrounding this issue must be overcome to ensure the Haitian people that the epidemic can be stopped in the shortest possible time frame and pay full compensation for the damages suffered,” Gallon said.

By the U.N.’s admission, foreign donors have been slow to contribute to a $2.2 billion, ten-year cholera elimination campaign that Ban began in December 2012 with the presidents of Haiti and the neighboring Dominican Republic. The organization has struggled to even raise an initial $400 million it says is needed in the first two years to contain the epidemic and build clean water and sanitation infrastructure.

Getting donors will be a key focus during his visit, Ban said, noting that Haitians “have suffered a lot” under the world’s worst cholera epidemic. The way to prevent a repeat of cholera, he said, is to help Haiti address the root causes, poor sanitation.

“The international community has been struggling to overcome this global financial difficulty, and we have so many crises happening at the same time around the world,” said Ban. “That is one reason why we have not been able to effectively mobilize.”

And while the humanitarian crises have also put pressure on Ban to reduce the size of the military mission in Haiti, observers say they believe donors are holding back for other reasons.

Some blame Haiti fatigue, which has some donors reassessing and reducing financial aid to the country. Others say the U.N.’s refusal to accept that leaking sewage pipes at its base were to blame for cholera spreading, is also a factor.

There is also Haiti’s ongoing political gridlock, which continues to threaten the staging of long-overdue local and legislative elections in October.

With every disagreement, observers say, Haiti’s politicians get further from reaching a compromise for the elections.

“My political message to Haitian leaders, government and parliamentary leaders, will be that it’s crucially important that this election be held as agreed and scheduled in October,” Ban said.

Photo: Thomas Hawk via Flickr

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