Rights groups suing UN for Haiti cholera epidemic

Cholera erupted in Haiti nine months after the 2010 earthquake and rights groups say UN peacekeepers are to blame. Will a lawsuit force the UN to compensate victims?

Dieu Nalio Chery/AP/File
A demonstrator holds up a sign that reads in Creole 'Cholera of U.N. is a crime against humanity' during a protest against the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, March 22, 2013.

The January 2010 earthquake that leveled large parts of Haiti and killed more than 200,000 people was met with a global outpouring of aid, supplies, and financial support for the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. The rebuilding continues today.

But back in 2010, just nine months after the devastating quake, a cholera epidemic spread across the country, compounding the disaster. It has killed more than 8,300 Haitians and sickened more than 650,000, and has yet to be quashed.

Some advocacy groups say the leading organization behind the rebuilding is the same culprit behind the epidemic: the United Nations. Today, one group – the Boston-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti – filed suit in US federal court in New York to force the UN to compensate victims of the disease.

“Haiti today has the worst cholera epidemic in the world,” Ira Kurzban, one of the lead lawyers in the case, told a news conference in New York. “Cholera was brought to Haiti by the gross negligence and reckless conduct of the United Nations.”

Cholera had been unheard of in Haiti for nearly a century until Oct. 2010, when doctors reported seeing cases in Port-au-Prince and other surrounding areas. Epidemiologists later identified the strain of cholera that was afflicting people, tracing it back to a base for UN peacekeepers located on a tributary of the Artibonite River in Mire­bal­ais, northeast of Port-au-Prince. The river is Haiti’s primary water source.

The Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti and Haiti-based partner organization Bureau des Avocats Internationaux filed the suit, saying “over­whelm­ing evi­dence” estab­lished that reck­less dis­posal of human waste by UN peacekeepers cre­ated the epi­demic. That conclusion has been buttressed by similar findings by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The institute filed claims with the UN in Novem­ber 2011, seeking compensation for victims and the installation of a new national water and sanitation system. But the world body dismissed the claims in February 2013 saying they were “not receivable” under international law that grants certain legal immunity and privileges to UN employees and requires the UN to come up with "appropriate modes of settlement" when it ends up in a legal dispute.

The UN press office had no immediate comment on the lawsuit. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced a $2.2 billion initiative in December 2012 to help eradicate cholera over the next decade in Haiti.

“Unfortunately, the United Nations has still not admitted its own culpability despite its own commission to investigate the sources of the epidemic,” Mr. Kurzban said. “Basically, the UN has stonewalled throughout this process.”

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