UN Rebuffs Haiti Cholera Lawsuit, Again

Francina Devariste, 3 years old, lies in a hospital bed in Dessalines, Haiti.
Francina Devariste, 3 years old, lies in a hospital bed in Dessalines, Haiti.
Francina Devariste, 3 years old, lies in a hospital bed in Dessalines, Haiti.
UN

The United Nations again refused to take responsibility for the cholera outbreak in Haiti caused by a peacekeeping unit from Nepal.

Legal claims against the UN were again rejected as the body reaffirmed its stance that it is a ‘political and policy matter.’

The cholera outbreak that started in October 2010 has killed nearly 8,200 Haitians and infected an estimated 665,00 people. More evidence, including a study published this month, shows that the cholera was imported from Nepal by a peacekeeping unit and was spread due to improper waste disposal into a nearby river.

A letter from the UN addressed to Brian Concannon, Director of the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), refused to consider mediation and said that “there is no basis for such engagement in connection with claims that are not receivable.” Patricia O’Brien, Under Secretary-General for Legal Affairs for the UN’s Legal Counsel, also refuted claims by IJDH that the UN has not lived up to its obligation to the victims of he cholera outbreak. She includes excerpts from recent remarks by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

“Since the outbreak of the disease, the United Nations, in cooperation with other partners, has taken several steps to contain and combat the epidemic and prevent future outbreaks,” said Ban. “These efforts have helped to decrease the rate of new infection by 90 per cent since the outbreak began. The mortality rate has been brought down to around 1 per cent. Still, further progress must be made.”

The UN  invoked Section 29 of the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the UN to say that the claims of the victims of the cholera outbreak made on their behalf by IJDH were not receivable, in a February 21 letter. IJDH responded on May 7 to the UN arguing that the international law requires the UN to “consider and settle claims filed by third parties for injury illness and death attributable to the UN or its peacekeeping forces.” It gave notice to the UN that the lawyers representing the victims would pursue a lawsuit in national court if an appropriate response is not received in 60 days.

US Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-CA) and eighteen of her colleagues wrote to Ban in late May calling for him to use his powers to ensure that the UN takes responsibility for the cholera outbreak. They say that the evidence that UN peacekeepers were responsible for bringing cholera into Haiti compels the UN to take responsibility, issue an apology and compensate the victims.

“We are concerned by the United Nations’ rejection of the claims made by 5,000 Haitian cholera victims and families of victims, who sued the United Nations,” wrote Waters and her co-signers.

Two months later, the letter from O’Brien arrived again dismissing the claims by the IJDH lawyers.

I therefore wish to reiterate that the United Nations remains deeply committed to do everything possible, together with its partners, to help the people of Haiti overcome the cholera epidemic.

A public statement soon followed from IJDH sharing the contents of the UN letter and stating that they have no other option than to pursue the case against the UN in court (listen to my recent conversation with Concannon about the legal case against the UN).

“The hypocrisy of the UN’s position is clear to the victims of UN cholera and everyone else in Haiti,” according to Attorney Mario Joseph of the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, who is lead counsel for the 5,000 victims and families who filed claims against the UN in November 2011. “The UN claims a mission of promoting the rule of law, and regularly lectures Haitian citizens and officials about the need to submit to the law. Yet the UN will not even explain why it is not subject to its own laws.”

Ban responded to Waters and her fellow members of congress on July 5. He affirmed his personal commitment to the issue of cholera in Haiti and described the way that the UN and its peacekeepers have responded to the outbreak. A UN report investigating the source of the cholera outbreak said there were several factors that contributed to the outbreak, said Ban. He latched on to a point made in the Waters letter that said poor water and sanitation in Haiti contributed to the outbreak.

The issue of UN guilt was not raised as Ban decided to focus on what the UN is doing in response. He says that the decision that the legal claims are not receivable were made by his Legal Counsel. Despite the decision, he stresses that the decision does not diminish his commitment to defeating Cholera in Haiti.

“In my visits to the country, I have been struck by the promise and the potential of the Haitian people,” says Ban. “They have endured much difficulty, but I am convinced that by joining forces we can help them build a new and better future for their great country.”

The Boston-based organization Physicians for Haiti evaluated the progress of UN no-cost recommendations for cholera in Haiti. They determined that in the two years since their proposal, most of the recommendations are not implemented. The UN so far has only managed to raise $207 million of the estimated $2.2 billion it will cost to rid the island of Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic) of cholera.

“The cholera victims, the U.S. Congress and the taxpayers around the world who fund the UN all deserve better,” says Concannon.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.