Lawyers seeking justice on behalf of thousands of cholera victims announced their next steps after the U.N. rebuffed their claim in February, citing immunity. Saying that they were offering the U.N. its “last opportunity to accept its legal responsibility,” attorneys with the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) announced in a press conference today (video here) that the U.N.’s response opens doors to trying the case in national courts, and that they will pursue this option if the U.N does not reply with “an appropriate response” in the next 60 days. The BBC’s Mark Doyle reported that “The lawyers say they will file claims for $100,000 (£64,000) for the families of those who have died and $50,000 (£32,000) for every one of the hundreds of thousands who have fallen sick,” which would total billions of dollars.
The attorneys described the U.N.’s rationale for rejecting the claim as being on “flimsy grounds.” They also placed the case in a broader context of impunity for abuse, which has included sexual assaults by U.N. troops and officers, and extrajudicial shootings in Haiti and other countries where U.N. troops have been stationed.
Attorney and IJDH board member Ira Kurzban slammed the U.N.’s justification of dumping of sewage into rivers as a matter of “policy,” even though this would clearly go against U.N. principles. Kurzban also noted that the U.N.’s failure to establish a standing claims commission that would allow Haitians to seek redress for U.N. wrongs goes against its responsibility to the world.
Also speaking at the press conference, Dr. Jean Ford Figaro, MD, MPH, and Health Education Coordinator at Boston Medical Center detailed various recommendations that the U.N.’s own Independent Panel of Experts have made that have yet to be implemented. Among these are the screening of U.N. troops, the distribution of prophylaxis, and on-site treatment of human waste. Figaro cited a new Physicians for Haiti paper that states that all three of these “recommendations could be implemented at either no or minimal cost to the UN.” In its paper, Physicians for Haiti also notes, “Two year later, the UN has not responded publicly to the [Panel’s] report, made public any proceedings from the task force, or made any of the changes in its medical or sanitation protocols recommended by the report.”
Physicians for Haiti notes that the U.N. has not admitted responsibility for causing the cholera epidemic that has killed over 8,100 people and sickened some 654,337 so far. “Despite data from the International Vaccine Institute that demonstrated cholera strains from Nepal and Haiti epidemics were an ‘exact match’” and other studies that identified U.N. troops from Nepal as the source.
In a letter responding to the U.N.’s claim of immunity from prosecution, IJDH spells out legal arguments to explain why the U.N. is liable for the cholera victims’ claims, including “treaty obligations under the [Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations] and [Status of Forces Agreement]” and “the fundamental right to an effective remedy, which has been recognized in major human rights instruments, including those adopted by the UN itself.” But, the letter also notes
The UN’s obligation to accept and respond to claims of liability for third-party personal injury and death attributable to the organization extends beyond the CPIUN and SOFA. Your predecessor as UN Legal Counsel stressed that “[a]s a matter of international law, it is clear that the Organization can incur liabilities of a private law nature and is obligated to pay in regard to such liabilities.”
In 1996, the Secretary-General observed that “the United Nations has, since the inception of peacekeeping operations, assumed its liability for damage caused by members of its forces in the performance of their duties.”
The IJDH team also noted that the efforts the U.N. is supposed to be making to eradicate cholera – namely their plan announced at the end of last year – has yet to receive significant funding. This was also noted in a Miami Herald article on Friday, which reported that:
Five months after U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon promised to “use every opportunity” to push for funding to eliminate cholera from Haiti and the neighboring Dominican Republic, government officials in both nations are still waiting on donors to open their wallets.
The feet-dragging comes as the rainy season begins and a new French study says the disease could quickly be eliminated from Haiti if investments are made to restrain transmissions.
“Cholera is only shrinking and has not yet disappeared. But it can disappear if the fight is correctly managed,” said Dr. Renaud Piarroux, who has studied the deadly waterborne disease in Haiti since it first appeared in October 2010.
The Herald’s Jacqueline Charles goes on to note
More than three years after the international community pledged $5.4 billion to help Haiti rebuild after its devastating Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake, more than $2?billion remains outstanding. Meanwhile, emergency cholera funds in Haiti are quickly drying up.
Charles quotes HRRW’s own Jake Johnston: “This is now the third year that funding for cholera has diminished prior to the rainy season when cases will predictably spike, leading to more easily preventable and unnecessary deaths.”
As we have been pointing out repeatedly, there have been many more deaths from cholera so far this year than in the same time period last year, and the rate could become worse once the rainy season starts.