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There is understandable outrage over the United Nation’s reaction to its role in first creating and then denying responsibility for Haiti’s cholera outbreak in 2010 that killed 8,000 people.  But last week another UN cholera denial story garnered less attention, this time in Zimbabwe following a UN tribunal ruling in Nairobi. (Al-Jazeera is the only major news outlet I found that covered the story.)

In 2008-09 nearly 100,000 Zimbabweans caught the disease and some 4,000 people died.  This was a shock since Zimbabwe had never before experienced a cholera outbreak of this scale and it was another signal of how far a once-proud public health system had fallen. Worse, cholera in Zimbabwe was not only avoidable, but probably exacerbated by the muddled response from, yes, the United Nations. As Elizabeth Dickinson ably reported back in 2010 for Foreign Policy:

It was a tragedy in every way -- not least because the worst might have been prevented. Months before the initial outbreak exploded into a full-blown epidemic, Georges Tadonki, who headed the United Nations' humanitarian office in Zimbabwe at the time, says he warned his superiors of the severe risk, suggesting to the U.N. country director, Agostinho Zacarias, that 30,000 cases or more were possible. But Zacarias stifled that warning, Tadonki claims.

Dickinson (and many diplomats in Harare) noted that Zacarias was considered uncomfortably (perhaps inexcusably) close to the ruling party. Instead of heeding Tadonki’s warning and rallying the world to help, the UN fired the whistleblower.

History has not only proved Tadonki right on cholera (actual cases were even greater than he feared), but last week, the UN Tribunal ruled in his favor [PDF] on his dismissal.  Although the ruling is a personnel-related decision, it paints a clear and damning portrait not just of the UN’s Harare office, but of an organization more concerned with keeping friendly with a dictator and a senior UN leadership more worried about its own internal staff, than doing its job of responding to thousands of people facing preventable death.  The three-judge ruling (p. 55-56) concludes:

In the Tribunal’s considered view, protecting Zacarias and saving his skin was of paramount importance to [UN] leadership in New York rather than the interest of the situation in Zimbabwe.

Haitians might recognize the sentiment.

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CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.