$1.7 trillion

In 2016, global military spending amounted to a staggering $1.68 trillion.

Courtesy of SIPRI

It likely won’t be surprising which countries topped the military-spending charts—that year, the U.S. and China clocked in at $611 billion and $215 billion respectively.

While states like the U.S. are, of course, in a league of their own, Canada is not off the hook. Though not commonly known as a “military superpower,” Canada is still in the top 16 highest defence spenders worldwide (and 6th out of 28 NATO countries).

What’s more, last June the Canadian government unveiled a plan to further expand its “hard power” on the world stage.

Driven by everything from armed conflict to foreign policy objectives, geopolitical interests, and perceptions of security, the “necessity” of high military spending can be difficult to challenge in political circles.

But what are the implications of such excessive spending on global peace, security, and development? Are global defence expenditures—which the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) says tend to be weak in transparency and accountability—connected to genuine security needs?

And how do such bloated defence budgets square with international obligations under Article 26 of the UN Charter, which calls for peace and security “with the least diversion for armaments of the world’s human and economic resources”?

As former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon once said, “the world is over-armed—and peace is under-funded.”

Enter the Global Days of Action on Military Spending (GDAMS, for short). Birthed in 2011 by the International Peace Bureau, this campaign—running from April 14th to May 3rd—calls for a reduction in worldwide defence budgets and the re-allocation of those funds for social spending.

This year’s slogan? “Reducing 10 percent of military assets will help save our planet!”

It goes without saying that the economic and human costs of war are overwhelming. Weapons—primarily small arms, cluster bombs, landmines, and other conventional weapons—have a devastating impact on people in conflict zones. And in the wake of war, rising health care and reconstruction costs take an incredible social and economic toll on communities.

Moreover, as Eisenhower warned back in 1953, excessive levels of defence spending also have an enormousopportunity cost.” While the world diverts a huge proportion of public resources to the defence sector, basic human needs such as food, health, education, housing, employment, and environmental security are chronically under-funded. Such under-funding only serves to create and exacerbate conditions of social, human, and economic insecurity.

But back to Canada…

The day after Foreign Affairs Minister Freeland delivered her foreign policy speech in the House of Commons last June (setting up the rationale for a bigger defence budget), Defence Minister Sajjan introduced his 113-page plan to hike Canada’s military spending by more than 70 percent over the next decade—from $18.9 billion today to $32.7 billion by 2026-7. Most of these funds are set to be delivered after 2021 (after the next election cycle!).

With big ticket items like fighter jets, military personnel, war ships, new capabilities for Special Forces, and so on, the defence plan was an unexpected pivot away from the Liberals’ election promise to “build a leaner military.”

Not surprisingly, National Defence is already the largest spender among Canadian government departments. And, of course, this prioritization of defence spending isn’t unique to Canada.

As SIPRI writes, globally there is “a gap between what countries are prepared to allocate for military means to provide security and maintain their global and regional power status, on the one hand, and to alleviate poverty and economic development, on the other.”

Just compare, for a moment, worldwide military spending against the entire budget of the UN. As Doug Roche—former Canadian Ambassador for Disarmament—wrote in a recent book, “all told, the entire body of work of the UN, including peacekeeping and the sweeping economic and social development programs of forty specialized agencies and programs, costs $30 billion per year. This works out to about four dollars per person on the planet. It is only 1.76 percent of the $1.7 trillion that nations spend annually on arms” (p. 79).

Yet, for decades, the UN has faced financial difficulties and been forced to cut back on programs.

This spending imbalance—and its implications for peace and security—is precisely what the Global Days of Action on Military Spending tries to draw attention to.

During tax season, some groups, like Conscience Canada, even encourage Canadians to withhold the military portion of their taxes and call for the creation of a government-controlled Peace Fund where that money can be diverted for non-military peacebuilding purposes. 

What could be achieved if governments re-directed even ten percent of current defence spending towards social development needs? 

Indeed…what if?

By Jenn Wiebe, MCC Ottawa Office director

Out of step on nuclear disarmament

The Humanitarian Disarmament Forum was abuzz with a celebratory spirit. It’s not hard to imagine why.

After all, the International Campaign to Ban Nuclear Weapons (ICAN for short) had just won the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize. And the landmark Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons—the result of years of hard work by millions of global campaigners—had opened for signature at the UN merely a few weeks earlier.

In the world of humanitarian disarmament, history had been made yet again.

On October 14-15, I had the privilege of joining coalition colleagues from Mines Action Canada (MAC) and Project Ploughshares at the annual Humanitarian Disarmament Forum in New York. For two, chock-full days, representatives from global coalitions working to protect civilians from the catastrophic effects of small arms, cluster bombs, landmines, fully autonomous weapons systems (aka “killer robots”), and nukes came together to share insights from their advocacy efforts.

Coming on the heels of the ground-breaking nuclear ban treaty and the Nobel Peace Prize, the joy at the forum was palpable.

Though they belong in the dust-bin of history, roughly 15,000 nuclear warheads are still in the world’s arsenals, many of them launch ready and on high-alert status. This means that the possibilities for nuclear catastrophe due to global tensions, human error, system malfunction, a rogue launch, or weapons-capture by non-state actors are far too close for comfort.

The international community has already stepped up to ban biological weapons (1972), chemical weapons (1993), landmines (1997), and cluster bombs (2008). Finally, more than 70 years after the devastation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nuclear weapons—the most indiscriminate, disproportionate, and destructive of all weapons—have also been banned.

Front row: Setsuko Thurlow and Ray Acheson. Back row: Allison Pytlak, Cesar Jaramillo (Ploughshares), and Erin Hunt (MAC). Photo courtesy of Erin Hunt

Adopted in the heat of July, the 10-page treaty (backed by 122 nations) outlines a categorical prohibition on the development, production, manufacture, acquisition, possession, or stockpiling of nukes or any other nuclear explosive devices.

Global campaigners like ICAN as well as Project Ploughshares and Mines Action Canada worked tirelessly, attending ban treaty negotiations as civil society delegates. Atomic bomb survivors (the Hibakusha) and victims of nuclear test explosions around the world were also critical players, providing, in the words of ICAN, “searing testimony and unstinting advocacy” on the humanitarian imperative for a ban.

As the shadow of nuclear conflict looms ever-larger in our current political reality, the new treaty fills a huge gap in international law.

Yes, there was strong opposition from nuclear-armed states (i.e. the P5 on the UN Security Council) and their allies. And, no, these states are not expected to sign-on to the treaty any time soon.

But other UN treaties have been effective even when key nations failed to sign up to them.

When the Mine Ban Treaty was negotiated in 1997 in Ottawa, civil society successfully argued that the humanitarian impacts of landmines far outweighed any military benefit these weapons offered in combat. This same argument helped drive the Treaty to ban cluster bombs roughly a decade later.

Banning these weapons has had significant ripple effects. Implementing an unequivocal ban on landmines helped contribute to the broad stigmatization of the weapon and encouraged even non-party states to adapt to new norms in military theater.

Now, the prohibition on nuclear weapons marks a shift in the nuclear abolition debate.

Whither Canada in this global conversation?

According to his speech last year during Disarmament Week, then-Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion claimed that a ban on nuclear weapons without the support of nuclear weapons states was a utopian dream. It was impractical, impossible, and divisive.

October 13th at First Committee, 72nd Session, Thematic Discussion on Nuclear Weapons

Since then, Canada’s actions have continued to be out-of-step with this global movement. Despite claiming its support for the abolition of nuclear weapons, the Canadian government not only boycotted the treaty negotiations but (rather than simply abstain) voted against the historic UN resolution that launched the process—a position influenced, in part, by U.S. pressure on its NATO allies.

Instead, Canada backs a “step-by-step,” incrementalist (and completely broken) approach to reducing nuclear arsenals, including, among other things, the proposal for a fissile material cut-off treaty, a “step” that has faced deadlock for years. I heard this support reiterated by the Canadian delegate’s remarks as I sat in on a First Committee meeting at the UN a few weeks back.

Back in 2010, the government unanimously passed a motion calling for Canadian leadership on nuclear disarmament. What happened?

Far from “being back,” Canada seems to be inching backwards on disarmament.

Encourage your Member of Parliament to sign ICAN’s Parliamentary Pledge and send a message to Canada’s Ambassador to the UN, urging support for the treaty!


By Jenn Wiebe, MCC Ottawa Office director

New policies galore

By Ottawa Office staff

In 2016 the Canadian government launched public consultations as part of a process for policy reviews of multiple government departments, including those dealing with foreign policy, International Assistance, and National Defence. Almost a year after closing these various consultations, the government released its general foreign policy direction via a speech made by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Hon. Chrystia Freeland, in the House of Commons on June 6, 2017.  In the days that followed Minister Freeland’s speech, Defence Minister Hon. Harjit Sajjin released Canada’s new defence policy on June 7, and International Development Minister Hon. Marie-Claude Bibeau held an event On June 9 where she released more specific details on Canada’s international assistance policy.

Chrystia FreelandMinister Freeland’s speech promised Canada will be a global leader in a time of uncertainty by working with partners and allies through multilateral institutions such as the UN and focusing on three priorities.

  • First, Canadian foreign policy will be shaped by Canadian values such as feminism, diversity and pluralism.
  • Second, Canadian foreign policy will be characterized by significant investments in the military in order that Canada can play a leadership role and provide assistance around the world.
  • Third, Canada is a trading nation and trade is crucial for supporting the Canadian private sector and building up the economy of other countries as one way to development.

Though highlighting Canadian global successes of the past Freeland offered few, if any, concrete details of how Canada would move forward, leading the world with Canadian values. Canada’s declared commitment to the Paris Climate Accord is one way to distinguish it from the current U.S. administration, but how does Canada’s commitment to building new pipelines line up with this stance? If Canada is indeed going to reach out through trade relationships, how does Canada uphold human rights in all of our relationships with China and Saudi Arabia? Freeland declared more funding and investment in the military as a way to lead. But what are the factors that would justify the involvement of the Canadian military overseas?

defence_minister_apology_20170429 photo by Justin Tang for Canadian Press

The Defence Minister Sajjin’s 113-page defence review was entitled “Strong, Secure, Engaged: Canada’s Defence Policy”. It included a promise that over the next twenty years the Canadian government will pour billions of dollars it did not budget for into defence spending. By shifting military spending policy, and promising to increase NATO contributions, the Liberal defence plan appears to be in-line with one of the loudest demands of the current U.S. administration. Indeed, in their speeches, the Canadian Foreign Affairs and Defence Ministers contended that given the apparent shifts happening in U.S. policies, Canada is only doing what it must in order to step up and be a leader on the global stage.

It is worth recognizing that the defence policy does acknowledge the multifaceted, changing nature of conflict; the importance of regulating small-arms; the impacts of climate change and economic inequality on conflict; the importance of women’s participation in peacebuilding; and the need to address the root causes of conflict. But despite acknowledging the range of potential mandates for our military, overall the policy seems to pivot further towards combat than towards humanitarian, disaster relief, or even peacekeeping missions.

web-po-foreign-aid-0609 by Chris Waittie for Reuters (2)

The 3rd policy – “Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy” – was highly anticipated by Canadian civil society and development organizations since the close of public consultations almost a year ago. Overall, there are few surprises, if any, in Canada’s new international assistance policy. Buzzwords and phrases like feminist, women and girls, reproductive health, grassroots organizations, climate change, SDGs, supporting the most vulnerable, and evidence-based policy showed up frequently in Bibeau’s presentation and within the policy itself. For now, what civil society groups will be watching in the coming months and years is how this policy will be implemented – i.e. what is the roadmap and where is the money?! No new budget money was allocated for international assistance in the 2017-18 Federal Budget, which means organizations like MCC and our coalition partners will continue to call for increases in ODA to reach Canada’s assistance and development goals, especially as we approach Budget 2018-19.

The Ottawa Office will continue to monitor announcements and watch the government’s actions as plans unfold. In particular, MCC will watch developments in foreign policy, defence and international assistance as they relate to areas where MCC has programming.

Actions speak louder . . . Canada in Iraq and Syria

“Our new policy in Iraq, Syria and the surrounding region reflects what Canada is all about: defending our interests alongside our allies, and working constructively with local partners to build real solutions that will last.”

These words were spoken by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on February 8, 2016. Flanked by the Ministers of Defence, Foreign Affairs and International Development, Trudeau sought to reshape Canada’s involvement in Syria and Iraq—or at least re-shape the messaging of Canadian foreign policy.

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Prime Minister Trudeau with Ministers of Defence, International Development and Foreign Affairs, February 8, 2016. Photo credit/Government of Canada.

Canada’s current involvement in the Global Coalition fighting against ISIS in Syria and Iraq is set to expire on March 31, 2017. Speculation is abounding: Will Canada extend its mission? If so, what will the mission look like? What will the messaging be?

The current context of Iraq and Syria calls for urgent action. There are millions of internally displaced peoples, ongoing strikes including in Mosul; the continued targeting of Yezidis and other vulnerable minority groups; and destruction such as we have seen in Aleppo.

On February 8, 2016, when Trudeau launched Canada’s revised mission, he emphasized integrated government programming to the tune of $1.6 billion over three years. While the Canadian military would still have a significant role, the vast majority of funds was earmarked for humanitarian response and long term development, $840 million and $270 million respectively. The termination of direct participation in airstrikes was arguably the most significant shift.

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A woman and her granddaughter—internally displaced by the Islamic State group in 2014—receive food assistance through MCC and the Canadian Foodgrains Bank. MCC photo/Kaitlin Heatwole

Military action, on the contrary, was the priority the previous government emphasized above all others. This included airstrikes, but also the arming and training of non-state actors like the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga. Of course, humanitarianism was also a significant part of the previous government’s mission; Iraq was named a partner country for long term development in 2014. But the need to protect Canadians and the world from “imminent” terrorist threats through military efforts took centre stage.

MCC Canada wrote twice to the Harper Government on Canada’s mission—at the beginning, in October of 2014, and during the first renewal in March of 2015.  Our most significant concern was Canada’s involvement in airstrikes. In 2015 we wrote:

“[N]ot only will air strikes in Iraq and Syria fail to address the deep-rooted ethnic and religious divisions underlying the present violence, but they will exacerbate existing—or create new—economic, social, and political grievances.”

But did things really change under Trudeau?

One glance at Operation Impact’s website, the official government website on the military part of Canada’s ongoing mission, shows the continuing flight missions, or sorties as they are called, of Canadian aircraft. Since February 2016 Canadian fighter jets have not conducted direct airstrikes, but they have continued to regularly participate in refueling and reconnaissance missions. Though not directly striking, Canadian aircraft are gathering intelligence and refueling other aircraft for the purpose of carrying out airstrikes.

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MCC supports this Kindergarten in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan for children displaced from their homes by the conflict with the Islamic State group. MCC photo/Kaitlin Heatwole

In other words, the impact of airstrikes has not lessened because Canada is not directly participating. In an MCC letter following the launch of the revised mission in February 2016, MCC again lamented the devastating impacts of airstrikes to destroy life, and vital health and education infrastructure, leaving cities “virtually uninhabitable and fueling massive displacement.”

A final point of contention is the arming of fighters in the region, particularly non-state actors, and the consequences and complexities of this. This question has come up time and time again—from Afghanistan to Libya and now Iraq, particularly with the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga. Canada, under Trudeau, has continued to arm state and Kurdish forces.

What happens when the “official” fighting is over? What about the demands of these different groups—and what about the dynamics with other groups in the area? In the case of the Iraqi Kurds, how will arming these groups impact, for good or ill, a unified government in Iraq? A unified and functional government is essential for long term sustainable development. The question is, will providing arms to the Kurds help create this functionality? Or will it continue to destabilize the region? Will it lead to more bloodshed?

In addition, the arming of the Iraqi forces has also raised alarm bells, as both the government forces and minority armed groups have been implicated in violations of human rights.

MCC Canada raised this issue in the first letter to the Trudeau government on this mission and it was the main subject of the most recent letter, from February 2017:

“Training and weapons transfers from the international community are counterproductive to building a unified Iraq in that they are fueling sectarian divisions at the political level and amongst minority groups; contributing to human rights and laws-of-war violations; and further destabilizing the country.”

Where does this complicated situation leave us?

As the Canadian government considers possible renewal of its mission in Iraq and Syria, one lesson we can surely take is this: It is important to look far beyond the messaging of government.  We need to think critically about government actions and their impacts on the region. It may be cliché, but on this and any other government policy, despite what is said we need to adopt that all-critical perspective. Actions speak louder than words.

By Rebekah Sears, Policy Analyst for the Ottawa Office.

 

 

Will Canada “be back” as a disarmament champion?

Next year will be the 20th anniversary of the Ottawa Treaty to ban landmines—a disarmament effort that radically curtailed global use (and virtually eliminated trade) of a lethal and indiscriminate weapon.

Canada’s political leadership was front-and-centre in this historic achievement.images1

Since then, great international strides have been made to establish agreements and norms against other weapons that cause grievous suffering to civilians.

Following the model of the landmine treaty, cluster bombs were categorically banned a decade later in Norway. And, in 2014, the Arms Trade Treaty became the first (and long overdue!) global agreement regulating the trade and transfer of conventional arms.

Where is Canada in all of this? Well, in the twenty years since the Ottawa Treaty captured the world’s attention, Canada’s disarmament leadership has waned.

Once a major donor in mine action, Canada’s funding dropped significantly after 2010. Then, in 2015, the previous government passed (with little political fallout) widely-condemned cluster munitions ratification legislation that contravened the spirit and letter of the Convention. And, to date, Canada is the only country of all 28 NATO members not to have signed the landmark Arms Trade Treaty.

While we have seen “sunny ways” on various issues since last fall, there has been barely a whisper on disarmament…until last week.

At a speech in Toronto on October 28 during Disarmament Week, Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion acknowledged Ottawa’s historic role in banning landmines, and signaled a number of government priorities for arms control and disarmament—some positive, some a bit ambiguous, and some not-so-good.

Acknowledging the rather troubling fact that Canada has yet to accede to the Arms Trade Treaty, Dion promised to make good on his mandate by “introducing the legislation necessary to join the ATT in the House of Commons by the end of this year.”

Civil society will be eagerly awaiting its full ratification into Canadian law.

06B18LancerCBU2Dion also recognized the need to “make more progress in the elimination of cluster munitions.” Though decidedly short on details, this is welcome news if it means Canada will increase investments in land clearance and victims assistance (as it did recently for landmines in Colombia).

Less welcome, however, is the government’s inaction on closing the controversial legal loophole that allows joint military operations with countries outside the treaty. Such inaction is curious considering that while in Opposition, the Liberals and NDP pushed (unsuccessfully) for amendments that would have categorically ruled out any connection to the use of these lethal weapons.

But the most problematic? Canada’s take on nuclear weapons.

According to Dion’s speech, a ban on nukes—the most indiscriminate, disproportionate, and destructive of all weapons (of which there are still over 15,000)—seems to be a utopian dream.

Canada recently voted against a widely-supported UN resolution to start a process towards negotiations for a legally binding treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons—backing instead the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty as the “more realistic” approach.

Minister Dion argues a ban isn’t possible, isn’t practical, and is divisive. Disarmament activists, however, argue that the world is rapidly changing, and the step-by-step approach to reducing nuclear arsenals is not only tired, it’s completely broken.

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Courtesy of ICAN

As billions continue to be spent modernizing nuclear arsenals, a ban is needed. And we should be under no illusion that there will ever be a “perfect” security environment in which to undertake this Herculean task.

Decades ago, a total ban on landmines would have been unthinkable—arguments about national security, military necessity, and their importance in joint military operations were used then, as they are now. Yet the thinkable became possible thanks, in part, to the standard-setting leadership Canada took in advancing humanitarian considerations, even in the face of aggressive opposition from allies.

Indeed, implementing an unequivocal ban on landmines helped contribute to the broad stigmatization of the weapon and encouraged even non-party states to adapt to new norms in military theater.

As a Project Ploughshares staff once said, “advocating arms control and disarmament is an incremental, often tedious activity with surprisingly rapid and successful exceptions—like the Ottawa Process.”

Big change can happen when there is political will.

Does Canada have the will to “be back” as a disarmament champion?

By Jenn Wiebe, Director of the Ottawa Office

Haiti is passionate

The international press offers a single narrative of Haiti – one of political instability, malnutrition, disease and devastation. “The poorest country in the Western hemisphere” – this is how Haiti is too often described, ignoring the many layers that comprise Haitian culture and customs and make Haiti one of the most fascinating yet least understood countries in the region.

In late May, four staff from MCC’s North American advocacy offices and the Colombia-based regional policy analyst visited Haiti for one week to engage with MCC Haiti partners with the goal of strengthening MCC’s Haiti advocacy work among its New York, Ottawa, Washington, Colombia and Port-au-Prince offices. During this time they got to encounter Haiti as it is, not as the sensationalist press so often describes it. What follows is Rebekah Sears’ description of Haiti as she experienced it. It originally was published on the MCC Haiti blog

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Members of CCODMIR and the Dominican human rights organization Centro Bono with the MCC team in Malpasse.  Photo/Ted Owald.

Haiti and the Dominican Republic (D.R.) are facing a migration crisis. For much of their history, tensions have been high between the two nations, most recently due to D.R. policies that discriminate against Dominicans of Haitian descent and Haitian migrants. In 2013, a new law stripped tens of thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent of their citizenship and, along with Haitian migrants, were made victim to sporadic and sometimes violent deportations to Haiti.

These policies and actions in the D.R. can be understood as a further attempt by the D.R. government to blame the country’s social and economic ills on Haitian migrants or Dominicans of Haitian descent, essentially scapegoating an entire group of people.

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When one person’s human rights are violated, everyone’s rights are violated.” — Pierre Garot Nere, Coordinator of CODDEMIR in Malpasse, Haiti. Photo/Anna Vogt.

During our journey in Haiti we spent time at the border, visiting those working on the front lines of this crisis. We met with members of a coalition of 15 Haitian groups, collectively known as CODDEMIR. For the past seven years, CODDEMIR (in English, the Collective of Organizations working for the Defence of Human Rights for Migrants and the Repatriated) has been pooling financial and human resources for one common goal of standing with the displaced from the D.R.

CODDEMIR engages in national and international advocacy on their behalf, through press releases, reporting, emergency assistance and education. Their passion and dedication spoke volumes to me; I felt hopeful creating a sense of hope as they shared their desire to protect  those who face difficult and divisive situations

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Stripped palms on Lake Peligre, in the border area of Malpasse. Photo/Anna Vogt.

The influx of people crossing the border since June 2015 has caused resentment in some Haitian communities. CODDEMIR has come alongside these communities to educate them about returnees’ needs. As a result, when CODDEMIR’s welcoming center is overcrowded, more local families and communities take displaced people into their homes.

Human rights groups, including CODDEMIR, are calling for significant action; action inside the D.R. to reverse laws discriminating against Haitians and those of Haitian descent, and action by the Haitian national government to come alongside migrants and also invest more in Haitian communities so people don’t feel they have to leave. They are also calling on the international community to pressure both governments to respond justly to the situation.

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In 2015 Michana (R) was living in the D.R. with her infant son. They were deported spontaneously and had no relations to help them on the Haiti side of the border. Miatrice (L) saw her crying on the side of the road and convinced her parents, who already had 8 people living in their home, to take them in. Terre Froide. Photo/Ted Barlow, Operation Blessing.

At the core, these organizations are calling for the recognition of our common humanity, encouraging all of us to welcome others, support each other, and stand together. In this, we can say that Haiti is passionate about welcoming and caring for others.

Rebekah Sears is a policy analyst with MCC’s Ottawa Office. 

A Forgotten Epidemic

This week’s blog, first posted on Third Way Cafe, is written by Katharine Oswald, MCC policy analyst and advocacy coordinator in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

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Haiti is home to the world’s worst cholera epidemic today. The outbreak was instigated in 2010, unknowingly, by United Nations (U.N.) peacekeepers. Five years later, Haitians are still waiting for an adequate response to this disaster.

I sat beneath an almond tree in Poirée, a rice-planting village on the outskirts of St. Marc, in northwestern Haiti. Though 40 townspeople formed a tight circle around my makeshift interview station, my attention was focused on the slight woman seated across from me.

“Did you contract cholera?” I asked her.

 “Yes.”

“Did anyone else in your family contract it?”

A pause. Her eyes darted from my own to the ground beneath us. Then Renette launched into her story: “My name is Renette Viergélan. I am 31 years old. In 2010, I was struck by cholera. While I was in the hospital, my baby also became sick with cholera. Before I regained consciousness, he had died.”

Renette has two surviving children, but she admitted her thoughts are ‘’consumed by the memory of [her] baby.’’ With her town’s continued reliance on river water and poor access to medical care, she is afraid she or her children will contract the disease again.

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Images of Renette Viergélan (far right) and other cholera victims were put on display across from U.N. headquarters in New York during General Assembly meetings in October 2015. Photo credit: New Media Advocacy Project.

It was September 2015, and I was interviewing cholera victims and their families as part of the Face | Justice campaign, which commemorated the five-year anniversary of cholera’s infamous introduction to Haiti. The campaign showcased images and testimonies of those affected by cholera at the U.N. in New York, Port-au-Prince and Geneva.

The pain wrought by cholera in Haiti is evident in individual stories like Renette’s. Yet the scale of the devastation is not grasped until one confronts the numbers – cholera has killed 8,987 Haitians and infected over 762,000. Joseph, a young man in a neighboring village, shared bluntly, “Every family in my community has lost something…because of cholera.’’

Cholera was unknown in Haiti before 2010. It travelled here through the unlikeliest of sources. Nepalese troops with MINUSTAH, the U.N.’s peacekeeping mission in Haiti, were stationed at a base near Haiti’s main river, the Artibonite. Sewage from the base, contaminated with a particular strand of cholera endemic to Nepal, leaked into the river when it was negligently disposed of by a U.N. contractor.

The disease quickly spread to all corners of the country. After a gradual reduction in infection rates over the past three years, new cases are now on the rise. It appears that cholera is in Haiti to stay.

The U.N.’s role in creating this humanitarian disaster is now undeniable, yet it still has not accepted responsibility for its actions. Instead it has developed a sweeping Cholera Elimination Plan–which is only 18 percent funded after five years of fundraising efforts. As a key decision-maker within the U.N. system, the U.S. government should use its unique position to help fund the Plan and encourage the U.N. to publicly acknowledge its negligence.

With such a poor international response, and the Haitian government reticent to make demands of the U.N., victims’ hope for remedies have waned. However, the people we spoke with are clear: they want their pain to be acknowledged; they want better lives for their communities; they want international donors to live up to their humanitarian principles; and they want the U.N. to finally face justice.