November 9, 2011
UNITED NATIONS — More than 5,000 Haitians, all victims of cholera or relatives of victims, have submitted a class action damages claim to the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), alleging that raw sewage runoff from the UN mission’s base introduced a strand of the cholera into a tributary of the Artibonite River, causing a national cholera epidemic that killed more than 6,600 Haitians and sickened over 475,000 others.
The petition, filed by Boston-based advocacy group Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), cites numerous international health organizations, including the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the Harvard Cholera Group, which found that “the Vibriocholerae virus was introduced to Haitian waters by MINUSTAH personnel deployed to Haiti from Nepal. ”
“The sickness, death, and ongoing harm from cholera suffered by Haiti’s citizens are a product of the UN’s multiple failures,” states the complaint issued here at a press conference. “These failures constitute negligence, gross negligence, recklessness, and deliberate indifference for the lives of Haitians.”
According to IJDH’s executive director Brian Concannon, this particular strand of cholera has never been documented in the Western Hemisphere, but it closely matches a type endemic to South Asia.
Before the October 2010 outbreak, the Caribbean island country had not reported a single case of cholera in more than 50 years.
The petition, which demands from the UN and MINUSTAH compensation, reparative action, and public acknowledgment of culpability, alleges that MINUSTAH failed to adequately screen peacekeepers from Nepal for cholera and maintain sewage treatment inside the peacekeepers’ camp.
The 5,000 petitioners in the IJDH claim are seeking $50,000 for every person sickened by the outbreak, and $100,000 for every death directly attributable to runoff from the MINUSTAH mission.
A UN-commissioned investigation disputes the petitioners’ claims. The report, released on May 3, found that a “confluence of circumstances,” including inadequate sewage treatment and faulty irrigation canals are to blame for the spread of the epidemic, and that the spread of cholera is not the “fault of any group or individuals.”
The report also said it was “not possible to be conclusive about how cholera was introduced to Haiti.”
At a daily news briefing here on Tuesday, UN spokesman Martin Nesirky refused to comment further on the IJDH claim, but he noted the report is “still being studied” and that the “relevant parts” of the UN will address the claims, including the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO).
Though the report has been filed to MINUSTAH in Haiti, there is no standing claims office at the base adequately prepared to process the complaints, Ira Kurzban, a Miami-based immigration and refugee attorney who helped file the claim, said at the press conference.
Kurzban said if the UN does not adequately respond to the petitioner’s claims, they are prepared to take the case to either the US or Haitian court systems, although both Concannon and Kurzban acknowledge that the UN’s blanket immunity clause may be a significant impediment to claims payouts actually being rewarded.
Given that this could potentially cost the UN anywhere from $250 million to $500 million, it’s possible that the filing of this report marks the beginning of a protracted legal battle.
The IJDH is continuing to file complaints even as it contemplates going to court. Concannon estimates that as many as 20,000 complaints will be filed, even though witnesses have reported that MINUSTAH’s base is no longer discharging raw sewage into the Artibonite.
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