By Makini Brice, Counsel & Heal
May 9, 2013
Lawyers from the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti have issued the United Nations with an ultimatum: either start talks for a compensation claim within 60 days, or the international organization will be taken to court to the tune of billions of dollars.
The Associated Press reports that Haiti has been struck by a cholera epidemic since 2010, shortly after a devastating earthquake rocked the island nation, killing 316,000 people and leaving a million more displaced. Shortly afterwards, Haiti was ravaged by cholera. Because the country had been free of cholera for 200 years, the citizens of Haiti had no immunity to the disease. As a result, the cholera epidemic has been so severe that, at one point, it was infecting one person a minute.
Independent studies have traced the strain of cholera to a United Nations camp located by the central city of Mirebalais. According to the Huffington Post UK, cholera is endemic to the southeastern Asian country of Nepal and, before sending soldiers to Haiti, the United Nations did not screen them for cholera. Lawyers also claim that the United Nations did not properly manage waste from the Nepalese camp, even dumping it directly into the Artibonite River, a major river that served as a water supply. The United Nations has never accepted responsibility for the cholera epidemic, though the organization did announce a $2.27 billion initiative to remove cholera from Haiti and the neighboring Dominican Republic. Lawyers say that is not enough, particularly because the United Nations is only ponying up 1 to 2 percent of the funds.
AFP reports that the lawyers are seeking $100,000 for the family of each victim that died from cholera and $50,000 for each live victim. With about 8,000 living victims and 8,100 families related to victims who had died from the epidemic, the lawsuit could mean billions of dollars to the United Nations. The lawyers say that they will file the suit in New York state, but they believe that the United Nations will move to have it tried in the federal government.
The move is an unusual one, because national courts typically do not try crimes from the United Nations. In general, because the United Nations claims “absolute immunity”, the United Nations examines its own acts with claims boards and tribunals. However, because the United Nations said in February that a complaint from the Haitian victims’ lawyers was “non-receivable”, the victims argue that the United Nations is violating international law. Because international human rights law says that all people have access to a court or remedy, the victims of the Haitian cholera epidemic argue that national court is the only way that can be achieved.
If the United Nations does not start talks with the victims’ lawyer for compensation, the organization may be opening the door to be tried in national courts. According to the BBC, the United Nations has been relatively silent on the matter, indicating that it does not want to make the wrong move.
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