United Nations Accused of Cholera Outbreak Coverup


Alex Hamasaki, Student InternLast Modified: 23:41 p.m. EDT, 4 March 2013

Zimbabwe, Children Carrying Water, Photo Courtesy of IRIN NewsOn March 1, 2013, Aljazeera reported that the United Nations (UN) was accused of covering up the 2008 cholera outbreak in Zimbabwe. The UN dispute tribunal in Nairobi, Kenya, found that the UN did not inform the Robert Mugabe government of the potential for a cholera outbreak.

Aljazeera further reported that George Tadonki, the then head of the UN humanitarian office in Zimbabwe, warned his superiors of the potential outbreak, but no actions were taken.

Tadonki claims that he was fired in January 2009 in part because he “sounded the alarm about the cholera crisis.” Supposedly, the UN did not want to upset the government of Robert Mugabe, therefore did not warn the government of the upcoming outbreak. Tadonki pursued the issue, and the UN dispute tribunal in Nairobi ruled that he was unjustifiably removed from his job.

The UN dispute tribunal concluded that there should be disciplinary action taken against four senior UN officials, including the former humanitarian chief of the UN, John Holmes. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) told Aljazeera that they intend to appeal the judgment.

Upon reading reports of this incident, I embarked on an effort to verify the Aljazeera news report. I was unable to located independent verification of Tadonki's assertions on any news sources. This seemed inconsistent and smacked of a coverup given the magnitude of this story both in terms of the adverse health impact, as well as the political ramifications of an organization as high-profile as the UN failure to live up to one of its core tenets.

I finally found the original report, Tadonki v. Secretary-General of the United Nations, Case number NDT/NBI/2009/36, on the United Nations Dispute Tribunal website. Published on February 26, 2013, the report suggested that the failure of the UNCHA to renew Tadonki’s contract was “unlawful,” and that the UNCHA ignored humanitarian values in their dealings with Tadonki. Further, the UN report said on page 304 of their report, the Applicant being Tadonki:

308. Even ASG [Assistant Secretary-General] Bragg had testified that there were problems with the RC/HC and Mr. Mukhtar and that the UNCT was weak so that by January 2009 deaths from cholera had reached the thousands. In spite of this, the Tribunal finds that whenever something went wrong in Zimbabwe at the material time, the blame was laid at the door of the Applicant. It appeared that while he achieved some positive results no credit was given to him. In fact, ASG Bragg told the Tribunal that the achievements made by the Applicant in Zimbabwe were nothing extraordinary because it was his job. Management listened to rumours from all quarters instead of objectively assessing the situation and the performance of the Applicant.

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Published: 4 March 2013 (Page 2 of 2)

309. The matter of the Applicant’s said interpersonal relationships with some of those in the humanitarian community in Zimbabwe at the material time and the criticisms of him by these people or groups constituted the singular issue that informed his removal by OCHA. The critical question is: what was the Applicant doing wrong? Principal among his wrongdoing is that by the time he had spent one month in the country, he had published an early warning ˗ suggesting that the UNCT, which had been operating before he came on the scene was ill prepared for an impending humanitarian crisis. In spite of the fact that no one could successfully counter his prediction, he appeared to have stepped on some big toes by stating the obvious. Thus the Applicant, a new-comer, had attempted to upset the applecart in a situation where, clearly, humanitarian considerations only played second fiddle to political issues.

There are several inconsistencies in the initial two paragraphs alone. First of all, this is unlike any UN report I’ve ever read. As a previous member of Model UN, we read several UN reports, none of which were this informal.

Second, the tribunal in Nairobi claims, “whenever something went wrong in Zimbabwe at the material time, the blame was laid at the door of the Applicant.” Ignoring informalities, the suggestion that “whenever something went wrong” is extremely ambiguous, and the tribunal could hence claim that the UN blamed Tandonki for anything including actions he had no control over.

Third, the report leaves me unclear to why the UN didn’t want to upset the corrupt government of Mugabe. Mugabe is responsible for a multitude of human rights violations during the time that Mr. Tandoki was stationed there. If the UN was attempting to cover up the outbreak, then we have an example of a serious violation of human rights.

This an ultimate lack of transparency for the UN, which was established in part to encourage transparency. Further, this suggests that the UN is in collusion with Mugabe. One can speculate that the UN nations did not want to upset Mugabe because they wanted to remain in Zimbabwe to continue humanitarian operations. Hence, attempting to move Tadonki to the OCHA Regional Office in Johannesburg to take the position of Senior Humanitarian Affairs Officer in order to cover up the cholera outbreak. Further, if the UN was ill prepared as this report suggested, then what exactly is our money doing?

This leaves me at another set of problems. Was the government of Kenya involved in the tribunal’s decision to find the UN guilty of covering up a cholera outbreak? Kenya and Zimbabwe have a long history of conflict, and further considering the strangely informal wording of the report, I am left suspicious. Further, I was unable to find any concrete information about the Nairobi dispute tribunal itself.

Perhaps this is just the tale of the disgruntled employee. Angry that the OCHA was not going to renew his contract, Tadonki made up the tale that the UN was covering up the cholera outbreak. When the tribunal in Kenya caught wind of this story, Kenya was eager to find a reason to prosecute their long-term enemy, and thus produced this report.

Ultimately, I am unable to ascertain what really happened in Zimbabwe in 2008. Is the UN caught up in a conspiracy of colluding with a corrupt government to cover up a cholera outbreak warning? Is Tadonki just upset that he got fired, and Kenya wanted to find a chance to stick it to their enemy? These are all questions that should have been asked in advance of publicizing this story, but regardless of the internal machinations of this organization, the internecine intrigue between Kenya and Zimbabwe, the ultimate victims are the Zimbabwean people who continue to suffer from lack of access to basic necessities such as clean water.

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Twitter: @nahmias_report Student Intern: @aghamasaki
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Sources: Aljazeera; Tadonki v. Secretary-General of the United Nations, Case number NDT/NBI/2009/36