An unprecedented lawsuit has been launched against the United Nations over the world body’s responsibility for the cholera epidemic in Haiti that exploded in October 2010. The epidemic killed more than 8300 people and stricken more than 650,000.
The legal action was formally launched in New York City on October 9 by the Boston-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), its partner office in Port au Prince, the Office of International Lawyers (BAI), and the Miami-based civil rights law firm Kurzban, Kurzban, Weinger, Tetzelli & Pratt (KKWT).
The disease continues to kill almost 100 Haitians every month. The epidemic was caused by contamination of Haiti's principal river with cholera-infected human waste from the Nepalese contingent of the UN Stablisation Mission In Haiti (MINUSTAH).
MINUSTAH is the UN Security Council police and military mission that has been occupying Haiti since 2004.
Speaking from Geneva, BAI managing attorney Mario Joseph said: “The filing of this lawsuit marks a critical step towards justice for Haiti and all those who have suffered and are suffering because of cholera.”
The plaintiffs in the case are five Haitians and Haitian-Americans whose family members died of the disease or who were infected but survived. They are asking a US court to certify the case as a class action. This would allow them to represent and obtain relief for the hundreds of thousands Haitians and Haitian-Americans who suffered injuries or died from cholera.
Brian Concannon, director of IJDH and co-counsel for the plaintiffs, said: “The Plaintiffs have undergone indescribable suffering as a result of cholera and have to live with the knowledge that cholera can strike again. They have the right to have a Court hear their case and rights to damages that will help them go on with their lives and access clean water.”
A 67-page complaint was filed in US federal court in the Southern District of New York. It details extensive evidence demonstrating that the UN knew or should have known that its reckless sanitation and waste disposal practices posed a high risk of harm to the population.
The evidence suggests it consciously disregarded that risk, triggering an explosive epidemic.
The plaintiffs seek damages for personal injury, wrongful death, emotional distress, loss of use of property and natural resources, and breach of contract.
The UN has legal obligations under international treaties to provide compensation or a fair forum for claims to people harmed by its operations. But the organisation has not complied with this requirement.
In November 2011, BAI, IJDH and KKWT filed claims with the UN on behalf of 5000 Haitian cholera victims, seeking remedies and the establishment of a commission. The UN refused to receive the claims in February, claiming that they were “not receivable” because considering them would “require a review of political or policy matters”.
The UN has come under strong criticism for its handling of the case, which includes denial of responsibility, stonewalling press inquiries, and a refusal to even meet with the cholera victims or their lawyers.
Speaking at the annual Martin Ennals Award ceremony on Oct 8 in Geneva, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay explained that she has supported the call for compensation to the victims of cholera in Haiti.
Paying tribute to Joseph, one of the three nominees for the prize this year, Madame Pillay said: “And let me say to you, I have used my voice both inside the United Nations and outside to call for the right … for an investigation by the United Nations, by the country concerned, and I still stand by the call that victims…those who suffered as a result of that cholera be provided with compensation.”
Stephen Lewis, a former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations, is also supporting cholera victims. He is the first prominent Canadian to do so and has specifically backed the legal action.
I think it is unequivocal, the responsibility of the United Nations for the cholera outbreak,” he told CBC Radio One’s Day 6 program on October 12. He dismissed suggestions that definitive proof of the origin of Haiti’s cholera epidemic has not been established. The disease was not present in modern Haiti before October 2010.
The epidemic, he said, “has been traced definitively to the Nepalese peacekeeping force” of the UN military mission in Haiti termed MINUSTAH.
Lewis accused the world body of hiding behind the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations. It was adopted by the fledgling agency way back in 1946. He explained that the convention is “clear” in providing for a lifting of immunity in cases where the UN secretary-general concludes that it interferes with justice.
Moreover, says Lewis, the convention specifically states that the secretary-general has a “duty” in such cases to pursue justice for victims of wrongdoing.
A lifting of immunity in the case of Haiti would be a “very significant precedent”, says Lewis, because it would apply to the world body itself, not simply to individuals working in its name.
Lewis explained that he worked for a lengthy period at UNICEF and learned, “to my amazement, that the UN was immune to everything.”
“Even a charge of sexual molestation had to go through endless approaches before you could get justice.”
He noted that the UN does not test for cholera the soldiers it sends on missions in its name and then asked, “How is that possible?”
Many scientific reports have proven the UN origin of the cholera epidemic. Other reports have detailed its legal responsibilities and its attempts at evasion.
The most comprehensive of those was published in early August by researchers at Yale Law School and the Yale School of Public Health. Titled Peacekeeping without Accountability: The United Nations’ Responsibility for the Haitian Cholera Epidemic, the report concludes:
• The cholera epidemic in Haiti is directly traceable to MINUSTAH peacekeepers and the inadequate waste infrastructure at their base in Meye.
• The UN’s refusal to establish a claims commission for the victims of the epidemic violates its contractual obligation to Haiti under international law.
• By introducing cholera into Haiti and denying any form of remedy to victims of the epidemic, the UN has failed to uphold its duties under international human rights law.
• The UN’s introduction of cholera into Haiti and refusal to accept responsibility for doing so has violated principles of international humanitarian aid.
After the report's publication, Jean-Marie Guehenno, the UN under-secretary-general for Peacekeeping Operations from 2000 to 2008 tweeted: “Peacekeepers have done a lot for Haiti, but UN needs to come clean on cholera crisis.”
Also critical of UN stalling on the matter are members of the US Congress and the editors of the New York Times, Washington Post and New York Daily News.
In two extraordinary editorials in August, Post editors directly challenged the UN’s refusal to accept responsibility for the cholera epidemic in Haiti.