WP Forgotten by the U.N.
THE WASHINGTON POST
Forgotten by the U.N.
Sunday, August 18, 2002; Page B06
TO LIVE in a psychiatric hospital in Kosovo, a recent inquiry has found, is to
live in a special kind of hell. Women are raped by male patients while staff
watch. Mentally retarded patients sit in enforced idleness, day after day, without
treatment or instruction. Reports of abuse are met with threats and retaliation.
Filth is everywhere. People who need counseling are instead drugged. People who
should be free are locked up for life.
All of which might evoke sympathy but little wider interest -- Kosovo is a poor
place, after all, and people with mental disabilities suffer in many poor
places -- but for this particularly shameful element: The institutions in question
were under the supervision of the United Nations while the abuses were taking
place; and American and Scandinavian do-gooders -- or supposed do-gooders --
failed to remedy the situation, even after being alerted. Their failure in turn
reflects a much broader failing of international aid. Organizations that care
deeply about human rights in general routinely slight the inalienable rights of
humans who are mentally ill or mentally retarded. And developed nations that years
ago learned that the mentally disabled are better off in their communities and out
of large institutions forget that lesson when they venture into the developing
world, where they build or rebuild mental hospitals (and orphanages) while
neglecting community solutions.
For these findings and insights we are indebted to Mental Disability Rights
International, a unique nonprofit organization whose executive director, Eric
Rosenthal, refuses to accept that the mentally disabled in poor countries should
be consigned to lives of torture. Mr. Rosenthal has looked at aid programs in
Russia, Romania, Latin America and now Kosovo and has found a dispiriting
sameness. Donors rebuild institutions that should be emptied because they like to
see shiny, spanking new results from their aid. The mistreated patients (or
orphans) inside the institutions continue to be mistreated, and the new buildings
do not stay shiny for long. Mental disability advocates back home are not
consulted; women's rights campaigners consider mental disability outside their
purview. "And so this is the ultimate forgotten problem," Mr. Rosenthal says.
His organization held off releasing its findings on Kosovo for a year, preferring
reform to publicity. But U.N. officials did not respond. When the report was
finally released, U.N. officials such as Fred Eckhard, spokesman for Secretary
General Kofi Annan, acknowledged the problems but pleaded (1) inability to
influence local officials and (2) poverty. But the U.N. mission in Kosovo after
the war, in 2000 and 2001, enjoyed the absolute power of a viceroy and, compared
to most aid missions, ample resources. That no one could bother to provide a
locked door between the men's and women's dormitories of Shtime hospital indeed
reflects a shortfall, but not of cash.