by Kim Ives (Haiti Liberte)
The legal noose is tightening around the United Nations to take responsibility for unleashing the world’s worst cholera epidemic in the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation, where hundreds of thousands have been affected by the deadly disease.
On Oct. 9, lawyers representing over 5,000 Haitian cholera victims and their families will file a class action lawsuit in the Southern District of New York to demand that the UN recognize its responsibility for introducing cholera into Haiti three years ago and pay reparations.
Lawyers with the Boston-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) and the Port-au-Prince-based International Lawyers Office (BAI) first brought a legal petition against the UN in November 2011 within the world body’s legal redress framework. That 37-page complaint charged that the “UN is liable for negligence, gross negligence, recklessness, and deliberate indifference for the health and lives of Haitian people resulting in petitioners’ injuries and deaths from cholera” and sought financial compensation for 5,000 Haitian petitioners, constructive action to prevent cholera’s spread, and a formal acknowledgment of and apology for the UN’s responsibility for bringing cholera into Haiti.
It took the UN over 15 months to reply on Feb. 21, 2013 in the form of a two-page letter arguing that “these claims are not receivable pursuant to Section 29 of the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations” governing the 9,000 UN soldiers deployed in Haiti since June 2004 as part of the Security Council-mandated UN Mission to Stabilize Haiti (MINUSTAH).
‘‘They may have immunity, but they don’t have impunity,’’ responded lawyer Ira Kurzban of the civil rights law firm Kurzban, Kurzban, Weinger, Tetzelli & Pratt (KKWT), who collaborates with the IJDH.
On May 8, IJDH lawyers held another press conference to tell the UN that, having exhausted internal UN legal avenues, they would soon be bringing a lawsuit in U.S. courts. That promise is to be fulfilled at 10 a.m. on Oct. 9 when the lawyers will present their case to a judge at the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Courthouse on 500 Pearl Street in New York.
Over seven medical research teams, including one sponsored by the UN itself, have investigated the cholera epidemic and concluded that it was unleashed when cholera-infected UN Nepalese soldiers stationed in the town of Mirebalais on Haiti’s Central Plateau allowed their sewage to leak into the headwaters of the Artibonite River, Haiti’s largest. Cholera, a water-borne bacteria, is primarily transmitted when human feces infects drinking water.
The legal action comes at a time when high-ranking UN officials are urging Secretary General to “come clean.” On Oct. 8, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said that “Haiti’s cholera victims should get compensation but she didn’t say by whom,” according to the Associated Press. “The remarks are the first time a UN official has spoken publicly about a need to provide compensation for Haiti’s cholera victims.”
Pillay’s remarks were made in Geneva, Switzerland at the Oct. 8 ceremony for the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders. The BAI’s lead lawyer, Mario Joseph, was one of the three finalists for the prize.
On Aug. 7, Jean-Marie Guéhenno, the former chief of UN Peacekeeping Operations from 2000 to 2008, tweeted that: “Peacekeepers have done a lot for Haiti, but UN needs to come clean on cholera crisis. Strong report from Yale Law School.”
He was referring to a 58-page report entitled “Peacekeeping without Accountability: The United Nations’ Responsibility for the Haitian Cholera Epidemic,” which concludes that: “1)The cholera epidemic in Haiti is directly traceable to MINUSTAH peacekeepers and the inadequate waste infrastructure at their base in Méyè. 2) The UN’s refusal to establish a claims commission for the victims of the epidemic violates its contractual obligation to Haiti under international law. 3) 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. 4) The UN’s introduction of cholera into Haiti and refusal to accept responsibility for doing so has violated principles of international humanitarian aid.”
In May 2012, even UN Special Envoy to Haiti Bill Clinton admitted that a UN Nepalese soldier had brought cholera to Haiti, depositing “his waste stream into the waterways of Haiti and into the bodies of Haitians.”
For the lawsuit to be filed Oct. 9, “there are five named plaintiffs in the complaint, but we are filing a class action which means that they will act as representatives for all others similarly situated, that is, all others who either contracted cholera themselves or had a family member die from the disease,” explained Kermshlise Picard, IJDH’s Communications Coordinator.
Having the judge accept the case as a class action is important, said another IJDH lawyer Brian Concannon, because “any of the almost 700,000 victims can opt in.”
In May, IJDH lawyers had said they might seek $100,000 for the family of each cholera victim who died and $50,000 for each victim who lived through the ordeal. But in this week’s filing, “we are not making any specific demand at this point,” Concannon said.
“This is an historic opportunity for the U.S. courts to hold the United Nations strictly to its treaty obligations, by refusing to allow the UN to hide behind immunity when it refuses to provide its victims any alternative," Concannon concluded.
Protestors across Haiti have long condemned the UN for bringing cholera to Haiti. Now a lawsuit aims to make them pay for it.