Lawyers of cholera victims have hailed the UN's draft report on the outbreak in Haiti, which hints that the UN itself was responsible. Many activists claim the disease was brought into the country by the UN peacekeepers.
Human right lawyers described the report as a "groundbreaking first step towards justice" on Thursday.
"Up until now, the UN had refused to engage in any kind of conversation about their role in the cholera outbreak," Beatrice Lindstrom from Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) told the Reuters news agency.
"It is still, though, far from being a formal apology," she added.
Cholera was absent from Haiti for almost a century before the devastating earthquake in 2010. It was likely introduced through a contingent UN peacekeepers, according to a study by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Nepalese troops were deployed to help Haiti cope with the earthquake and stationed near Haiti's biggest river. Experts believe the river carried raw sewage from the camp.
Cholera is endemic to Nepal and spreads through water.
UN invoked immunity
An independent panel appointed by the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, however, concluded that the outbreak was "not the fault of, or deliberate action of, a group or individual," in a May 2011 report.
The UN has also repeatedly denied responsibility and refused to waive its diplomatic immunity in a lengthy legal battle with the IJDH lawyers.
On Wednesday, however, the New York Times reported on a draft document by UN advisor on human rights' issues Philip Alston, who said the epidemic "would not have broken out but for the actions of the United Nations."
Ban Ki-moon's spokesman Farhan Haq also told reporters on Thursday that the UN had "become convinced it needs to do much more regarding its own involvement in the initial outbreak and the suffering of those affected by cholera."
At the same time, Haq stressed that the organization's position on claiming immunity "has not changed."
Activists keep pushing
"We will continue to fight to get financial compensation for cholera victims, a formal public apology that victims are demanding and ensure the UN does much more to support water and sanitation efforts to eradicate cholera in Haiti" IJDH lawyer Lindstrom said.
The disease has killed over 9,000 people and infected over 770,000, or around 7 percent of the country's population. As of March, an average of 37 people die from the disease every month. The outbreak was expected to continue.
Haiti is among the poorest nations in the world and less than one quarter of the population has access to toilets. Clean water is also beyond the reach of many.
The final report by the UN advisor Alston is due to be released in late September.
dj/kl (Reuters, AP, AFP)