By: Mimi Whitefield, Miami Herald
November 8, 2011
More than 5,000 victims of Haiti’s deadly cholera outbreak or relatives of those who died have submitted claims to the United Nations for hundreds of millions of dollars in damages related to the introduction of the disease into Haiti a year ago.
A study published in a journal of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control last summer “strongly suggests’’ that a U.N. peacekeeping mission brought the cholera strain to Haiti, but the U.N. has never admitted its peacekeepers were responsible for the ongoing epidemic. To date, it has killed more than 6,600 Haitians and sickened in excess of 475,000 people.
Attorneys delivered the petitions for damages Thursday to both the United Nations and the U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti, which is known as MINUSTAH.
“I cannot comment more on the petition as, of course, the mission must study it in detail,’’ Kieran Dwyer, a spokesman for the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations, said Tuesday.
Ira Kurzban, a Miami lawyer who is working on the case, said attorneys are seeking damages of $50,000 per victim and $100,000 for each family of a Haitian who died from cholera — a water-borne disease.
When peacekeepers enter a country they sign a special-forces agreement that grants immunity for most contingencies, Kurzban said. But he added: “It doesn’t grant immunity for introduction of a disease into a country.’’
In addition to damages, lawyers for the victims want a public apology from the United Nations and a nationwide response that includes medical treatment for current and future victims and a program to provide clean water and sanitation.
“Ultimately, the sewage at the peacekeepers’ camp overflowed into a tributary of the major river in Haiti and that is why the cholera spread so quickly,’’ Kurzban said.
The CDC study found a exact correlation in time and place between the arrival of a battalion of peacekeepers from Nepal in the remote Artibonite region of Haiti last October and the first cases of cholera along the Meille River a few days later. The same cholera strain was present in the peacekeepers’ South Asian homeland.
“The Secretary General has taken this matter very seriously,” said Dwyer. An independent scientific panel appointed in January by the United Nations, he said, reported in May “that it was not possible to be conclusive about how cholera was introduced into Haiti. We do not know that it was U.N. peacekeepers who brought cholera to Haiti.’’
Kurzban said the U.N. entities are liable because they failed to adequately screen and rescreen peacekeepers coming from a country experiencing a cholera outbreak, dumped waste into a tributary of Haiti’s most important river and failed to respond adequately to the outbreak.
Also working on the case are the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti and the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, a group of human rights lawyers in Haiti.
“This is an opportunity for the United Nations to demonstrate that its stated ideals of eliminating disease and encouraging respect for rights are not just empty promises,” said Mario Joseph, managing attorney for the bureau.
Kurzban said the lawyers hope to negotiate with the U.N. entities to reach a satisfactory solution.
(Special correspondent Stewart Stogel at the United Nations contributed to this report)
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