Historic lawsuit launched against UN over negligence in Haitian cholera epidemic

A UN Security Council military mission operating in Haiti is being sued for reckless waste disposal practices that are believed to have caused a deadly outbreak of cholera among the local population. Haiti's case could set an important precedent for the United Nations, which has operated with virtual immunity in the past. 

Photo source: IJDH

An unprecedented lawsuit has been launched against the United Nations over the world body’s responsibility for the cholera epidemic in Haiti that exploded in October 2010 and has killed more than 8,300 people and stricken more than 650,000.

The legal action was formally launched in New York City on October 9 by the Boston-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), its partner office in Port au Prince, the Bureau des avocats internationaux (BAI—Office of International Lawyers), and the civil rights law firm in Miami, Kurzban, Kurzban, Weinger, Tetzelli & Pratt (KKWT).

The disease continues to kill almost 100 Haitians per month. The epidemic was caused by contamination of Haiti's principal river with cholera-infected human waste from the Nepalese contingent of MINUSTAH (United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti). That’s the UN Security Council police/military occupation mission in Haiti that began in 2004.

Speaking from Geneva, where he was recently honored as a finalist for the Martin Ennals Award for human right advocacy, BAI Managing Attorney Mario Joseph said: "The filing of this lawsuit marks a critical step towards justice for Haiti and all those who have suffered and are suffering because of cholera."

The plaintiffs in the case are five Haitians and Haitian-Americans whose family members died of the disease or who were infected but survived. They are asking a U.S. court to certify the case as a class action. This would allow them to represent and obtain relief for the hundreds of thousands Haitians and Haitian-Americans who suffered injuries or died from cholera.

"The Plaintiffs have undergone indescribable suffering as a result of cholera and have to live with the knowledge that cholera can strike again. They have the right to have a Court hear their case and rights to damages that will help them go on with their lives and access clean water," said Brian Concannon, Jr., Esq., director of IJDH and co-counsel for the plaintiffs.

A 67-page complaint was filed in U.S. federal court in the Southern District of New York. It 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. The plaintiffs seek damages for personal injury, wrongful death, emotional distress, loss of use of property and natural resources, and breach of contract.

The UN has legal obligations under international treaties to provide compensation or a fair forum for claims to people harmed by its operations. But the organization has not complied with this requirement. In November 2011, BAI, IJDH and KKWT filed claims with the UN on behalf of 5,000 Haitian victims of cholera, seeking remedies and the establishment of a commission. The UN refused to receive the claims in February 2013, claiming that they were "not receivable" because considering them would "require a review of political or policy matters."

The UN has come under strong criticism for its handling of the case, which includes denial of responsibility, stonewalling press inquiries, and a refusal to even meet with the cholera victims or their lawyers.

Speaking at the annual Martin Ennals Award ceremony on Oct 8 in Geneva, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, explained that she has supported the call for compensation to the victims of cholera in Haiti.

Paying tribute to Mario Joseph, one of the three nominees for the prize this year, Madame 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…those who suffered as a result of that cholera be provided with compensation."

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