Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word

12 December 2016, 0244 EST

It’s the eternal quandary of thinking about the intersection of international politics and global health: where does Elton John fit in? We now have an answer. It’s where we try to understand issues of moral and legal responsibility of an international organization.

About a month ago, I wrote about cholera and global health. One of the reasons cholera is such a big issue is because of the ongoing outbreak in Haiti—the worst in recent history, and one that we can directly trace to the 2010 earthquake and Hurricane Matthew in October. Natural disasters can obviously disrupt the sanitation systems that keep cholera from spreading. Haiti’s cholera outbreak is different, though; the disease came to the country with UN peacekeepers from Nepal. The soldiers’ untreated waste went into open pools, where it easily leaked into important waterways and spread to a population already grappling with a lack of sanitation infrastructure.

The link between the presence of UN peacekeepers and Haiti’s cholera outbreak was not just discovered. Scientists confirmed the connection relatively quickly, but the United Nations itself continued to deny a relationship between the two until this past August. When the UN came out with a statement in August, it carefully parsed its language. A spokesman for the organization stressed that “the UN has become convinced that it needs to do much more regarding its own involvement in the initial outbreak and the suffering of those affected by cholera.” Note that wording. It did not say that UN was responsible for the outbreak or that it had any culpability. When two organizations filed suit against the UN on behalf of 5000 cholera victims for its role in the outbreak, the UN consistently claimed that it was legally immune from any such challenges. Leaving aside the questions of this legal interpretation, the UN’s actions effectively disempowered cholera’s victims (and if you haven’t read the great analysis on the consequences of the UN’s legalism by Mara Pillinger, Ian Hurd, and Michael Barnett, stop what you are doing and check it out). The UN announced plans in October to set up a $400 million fund to compensate those who were “most affected” by the outbreak, but the organization said that it was accepting moral, but not legal, responsibility. It was a less than satisfying outcome.

And then we get to December 1st, and the strangest thing happened. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon apologized. “On behalf of the United Nations, I want to say very clearly: we apologize to the Haitian people…we simply did not do enough with regard to the cholera outbreak and its spread in Haiti. We are profoundly sorry for our role,” he declared. The mere fact that the head of the United Nations is saying he is sorry is profoundly important.

When you parse the details a bit, though, the Secretary-General’s apology becomes less satisfying. The UN apologized for its inaction in addressing the outbreak once it happened, but it wasn’t actually apologizing for the outbreak itself or how its oversights in deploying peacekeepers allowed the outbreak to begin. Philip Alston, the UN’s special rapporteur for human rights, called Ban’s speech a “half-apology” because the organization still refused to accept legal responsibility for the outbreak. Activist groups reacted to Ban’s announcement cautiously—appreciating that the UN was admitting some degree of responsibility, but remaining vigilant to ensure that the organization lived up to its previously-announced financial pledges.

Interestingly, a half-apology (especially if the financial promises don’t materialize) could put the UN in a worse position. Is anyone ever really satisfied by the “I’m sorry that you were offended” sort of half-apology? No, of course not. The same holds true in international relations. Jennifer Lind argues in Sorry States that international reconciliation is more difficult in situations where a country denies its past atrocities. Japan’s failure to take responsibility for its actions during World War II have contributed to continued wariness by other countries. At the same time, though, apologies in and of themselves are not absolutely necessary; acknowledging past harm can go a long way toward helping former adversaries get along with each other again.

There are obvious differences between how states relate to one another during wartime and how an international organization and one of its member-states interact, but Lind’s findings could be instructive for global health. If the UN can genuinely acknowledge the pain it has caused and ensure that it lives up to its pledges, that will go a long way toward helping it rebuild its legitimacy with the Haitian people. That credibility will then benefit the UN in future situations where it tries to address humanitarian emergencies and health crises. No one likes to admit their failures, but doing so now can set the stage for better relations down the road. Given the questions about the legitimacy of international organizations working on global health issues, now is the time to do everything possible to engage with international society in a positive way. Haiti’s cholera outbreak is a genuine tragedy. International organizations like the UN need to demonstrate that they are committed to avoiding these sorts of problems in the future.

(Side note: the next time we use Elton John to talk about international relations, it has to be “Rocket Man,” right? Maybe we should start a karaoke night during the International Studies Association conference.)