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Haitians sue UN over cholera

18 October 2013

AP

Source: a boy carrying water from a stream, near Port au Prince, Haiti

Source: a boy carrying water from a stream, near Port au Prince, Haiti

LAWYERS filed a class action lawsuit against the United Nations on Wednesday of last week to demand compensation for the victims of a cholera epidemic in Haiti that has claimed more than 8300 lives.

Lawyers from the human-rights groups the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) and the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), and the civil-rights law firm Kurzban, Kurzban, Weinger, Tetzeli & Pratt (KKWT), claim that, in October 2010, the UN contaminated a river in Haiti with cholera-infected human waste.

The complaint was filed in New York. The IJDH and BAI said that it detailed "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, and that it consciously disregarded that risk, triggering an explosive epidemic".

The plaintiffs in the case are five Haitians and Haitian-Americans whose family members died of the disease or who were infected but managed to survive. They are seeking damages for personal injury, wrongful death, emotional distress, loss of use of property and natural resources, and breach of contract. They have asked the court to certify the case as a class action, so that they will represent all Haitians and Haitian-Americans who suffered injuries or died from cholera.

More than 650,000 cholera infections have been reported by the government of Haiti since the disease appeared in October 2010, ten months after the earthquake that devastated the country (News, 19 November 2010). This was the first time that cholera had been identified in Haiti for nearly a century.

In 2011, the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, commissioned an independent panel to investigate the cause of the epidemic, amid media reports that peacekeepers from Nepal, where cholera is endemic, were the source.

The panel found that the cholera outbreak was "caused by bacteria introduced into Haiti as a result of human activity", and that it was similar to the South Asian strains of the disease. The construction of water pipes at the camp where Nepalese troops were stationed was "haphazard, with significant potential for cross-contamination". The panel ruled, however, that the outbreak was "not the fault of, or deliberate action of, a group or individual".

The BAI/IJDH case claims that failures on the part of the UN, including failure to screen troops for cholera before deployment, "constitute negligence, gross negligence, recklessness, and deliberate indifference for the lives of Haitian people".

In November 2011, BAI, IJDH and KKWT filed claims with the UN on behalf of 5000 Haitian victims of cholera. In February this year, the UN said that the claims were "not receivable".

On Tuesday, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said that the victims of the outbreak should be compensated.

On Wednesday of last week, a UN spokesman, Farhan Haq, said that the organisation was "committed to do all that it can do to help the people of Haiti overcome the cholera epidemic". In December, Mr Ban launched an initiative for the elimination of cholera in Haiti and the Dominican Republic focusing on prevention, treatment, and education. Last year, 100 to 200 cases were still being reported daily.

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