The UN has always disputed claims that Nepalese peacekeepers brought cholera to the island nine months after an earthquake struck Haiti, the first known appearance of the disease there in over 150 years.
Cholera is an acute gastrointestinal illness caused by ingesting food or drink contaminated with Vibrio cholerae bacteria. It can cause severe diarrhea and vomiting, which leads to extreme dehydration. Patients who are not treated quickly to restore lost fluids can die within hours. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
, there are 3 million to 5 million cases of the illness every year worldwide and 100,000 deaths.
After a leak Thursday to the New York Times of a scathing report by a UN investigator, UN Deputy Spokesman Farhan Haq told CNN that "over the past year, 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." The UN says it is considering several options.
The draft report the New York Times obtained, prepared by Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights Philip Alston and commissioned by the UN, says the epidemic "would not have broken out but for the actions of the United Nations."
The UN is not saying that it caused the epidemic.
It can choose to accept the findings of the report or adjust the findings after discussions with Haiti and other member countries. The final version will be presented to the United Nations within two months.
"We're trying to figure out how to resolve this," Haq said Thursday, "figuring out how to do the right thing."
Reports have claimed that poor sanitation at a UN peacekeeper camp allowed sewage to seep into a river.
When asked whether the UN was saying for the first time that it was responsible for the outbreak, Haq said, "I don't have anything to say about that."
Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson said on CNN's "Amanpour" on Thursday that the UN is seeking to combine "an element of compassion" with the organization's strict legal position on immunity for actions of peacekeepers.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has instructed aides to work out a solution, he said, and "we expect UN member states to accept moral responsibility" for the outbreak.
In the past, UN member countries have feared heavy financial obligations for Haiti and other cases that could arise around the world.
Activists fighting for justice for the Haitian victims were overjoyed at the possibility that the UN was changing its position. Beatrice Lindstrom of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti said, "this is a groundbreaking first step for justice."
However, Lindstrom added, "the real test is what comes next. Promises will not stop cholera's killing or compensate for the damage to poor families in Haiti." She wants a public apology from the UN and a plan to compensate victims.
US Sen. Ed Markey, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said the acknowledgment is "an important first step in reinstating trust with the Haitian and global community." He called on the UN to "support the development of solutions that prevent disease transmission and provide treatment for the thousands of people suffering from this deadly scourge."
Several lawsuits have been filed on behalf of the victims. But the UN never budged from its denial of involvement in the deaths.
A class-action lawsuit in a Brooklyn federal court blames the UN for the spread of the disease. Haq said Thursday that the UN's legal position has not changed.
At one point in the long-running saga, Ban was served on a New York sidewalk with legal papers regarding the case.
The UN says it has been involved since 2010 in trying to eradicate cholera in Haiti.
However, five special investigators for the UN chastised Ban this year, saying he undermined the credibility of the organization by denying responsibility for the cholera outbreak.