In a development that has received much media attention, lawyers working on behalf of Haitian cholera victims brought a class action lawsuit against the United Nations on Wednesday over U.N. troops’ role in introducing the cholera bacteria to Haiti three years ago. The suit was filed in a federal court in New York on behalf of five named victims by the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) and the law firm of Kurzban, Kurzban, Weinger, Tetzelli & Pratt, with more plaintiffs expected to join. Since it is a class action complaint, the amount of damages sought is unspecified, although it does include $2.2 billion in order to provide full funding for the Haitian and Dominican governments’ cholera eradication plan, which was created with the U.N. but is only about 9 percent funded some 8 months after it was unveiled.
The IJDH warned the U.N. in May that such a lawsuit would be forthcoming if the organization continued to dodge responsibility for bringing cholera to Haiti. This Friday, October 19 will mark three years since the first cholera case was reported in Haiti in over a century.
"Haiti today has the worst cholera epidemic in the world," said Miami attorney Ira Kurzban, who announced the lawsuit at a joint news conference with the human rights groups Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) and the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH).
"Before these events, Haiti did not know of cholera for 100 years. Cholera was brought to Haiti by U.N. troops," Kurzban said.
Asked to comment on the suit, U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq said: "We don't discuss claims brought against the U.N."
The United Nations was working on the ground in Haiti to provide assistance to those affected, he added. It was committed to do all it can do "to help the people of Haiti overcome the cholera epidemic," Haq said.
Although the U.N. has yet to admit responsibility for the epidemic that has killed over 8,300 people and sickened over 675,000, at least 10 scientific studies have linked the outbreak to U.N. troops from Nepal. As IJDH explains in a press release
The 67-page complaint, filed [Wednesday] in federal court in the Southern District of New York, 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, and that it consciously disregarded that risk, triggering an explosive epidemic.
Among the reckless practices, IJDH notes that
Defendants knowingly disregarded the high risk of transmitting cholera to Haiti when, in the ordinary course of business, they deployed personnel from Nepal to Haiti, knowing that Nepal was a country in which cholera is endemic and where a surge in infections had just been reported. Defendants failed to exercise reasonable care to test or screen the personnel prior to deployment, allowing them to carry into Haiti a strain of cholera that a UN-appointed panel of experts and other independent scientific experts have since determined is the source of Haiti’s present cholera epidemic.
Defendants stationed their personnel on a base on the banks of the Meille Tributary, which flows into the Artibonite River, Haiti’s longest river and primary watersource for tens of thousands. There, Defendants discharged raw sewage from poor pipe connections, haphazard piping, and releases of water contaminated with human waste. They also regularly disposed of untreated human waste in unprotected, open-air pits outside the base where it flowed into the Meille Tributary. Defendants’ sanitation facilities and disposal pits overflowed in heavy rain, emitted noxious odors, and exposed the local community to raw sewage.
The complaint goes on to describe how despite being aware of the dangers, the U.N. “did not take any steps” to mitigate them, and “recklessly failed to take remedial steps necessary to contain the outbreak” once it began – including by “willfully delay[ing] investigation” and “obscur[ing] discovery of the outbreak’s source.”
This behavior was especially negligent, since, as IJDH states, “Defendants have long known that Haiti’s weak water and sanitation infrastructure created a heightened vulnerability to waterborne disease but failed to exercise due care to prevent the devastating outbreak of such disease.” Indeed, the U.N. previously attempted to lay blame for the epidemic with Haiti’s lacking water and sanitation infrastructure – seemingly overlooking that these factors made the U.N.’s behavior all the more dangerous and egregious.
The suit was filed just days after a high-level U.N. official finally spoke out and said that Haitian cholera victims are owed compensation. Speaking at a ceremony in Geneva where BAI Director Mario Joseph was a finalist for the Martin Ennals human rights award, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said "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 of — of those who suffered as a result of that cholera be provided with compensation.”
But Pillay did not say who should compensate the victims and their families. Pillay’s comments in turn come only weeks after Haitian Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe told the U.N. General Assembly that “The United Nations has ‘a moral responsibility” in the deadly cholera outbreak,” as the Miami Herald reported.
The lawsuit was greeted with a new wave of editorials condemning the U.N. both for its negligence in causing the epidemic and its “obstinacy” in refusing to take responsibility and ensure justice for the victims. The New York Times called on the U.N. to “acknowledge responsibility, apologize to Haitians and give the victims the means to file claims against it for the harm they say has been done them. It can also redouble its faltering, underfinanced response to the epidemic, which threatens to kill and sicken thousands more in the coming decade.” Bloomberg echoed these sentiments, adding that the organization should “create a compensation fund for families of the dead, the ailing and the many more who are expected to fall victim to cholera in Haiti over the next decade.”
Despite U.N. troops’ responsibility in the disease’s emergence, the U.N. Security Council unanimously decided to extend the U.N.’s Haiti mission (MINUSTAH’s) mandate for another year, meaning that another over half-million dollars will go to the unpopular military and police presence instead of efforts to eradicate cholera. Ironically, in making the decision, as the Associated Press reported, “The Security Council urged the United Nations on Thursday to keep up efforts to combat cholera in Haiti in a resolution extending the mandate of the peacekeeping force whose soldiers have been widely blamed for starting the epidemic.”