Though Haiti recently made it to the UN General Assembly’s agenda, the UN still isn’t taking responsibility for the cholera epidemic and not enough has been done to provide justice to the victims. At an anti-cholera protest in front of UN headquarters September 26th, IJDH Staff Attorney Beatrice Lindstrom explained how the UN is violating its treaties by not providing a remedy for cholera victims. Meanwhile, the Haitian government is also facing criticism for not doing enough to demand justice for cholera victims.
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Haiti’s Cholera Epidemic Reveals UN Defying Its Own Treaties
Makini Brice, The Canal
September 29, 2014
Haiti may be on the UN General Assembly’s agenda again, but the real confrontation with the Caribbean nation is set to take place in a nearby New York courthouse. Several groups have hit the United Nations with class-action lawsuits over a four-year cholera epidemic that many studies have traced to Nepalese peacekeepers at a UN camp.
Demonstrators march in Boston against UN officials unwilling to face up to negligence in Haiti. (IJDH)
In 2010, Haiti was devastated by an earthquake that hit the country’s capital, killing hundreds of thousands and leaving an additional 2 million homeless. Shortly afterwards, a cholera epidemic swept the country, sickening about 700,000 people and killing around 8,500, according to the UN mission in Haiti.
Multiple studies, including one from Yale University, affirm that the epidemic spread from peacekeepers in a UN camp about 35 miles from Port-au-Prince. UN officials, however, have refused to accept responsibility.
In 2011, the Office of International Lawyers (BAI) and the Boston-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) began filing claims for compensation on behalf of Haitian and Haitian-American victims and their families — but to no avail. In 2013, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon wrote to members of the US Congress: “After careful deliberation, claimants were informed that the claim is not receivable.”
So last year, the two public-interest law firms and a private law firm (KKWT) sued the United Nations, seeking compensation for “personal injury, wrongful death, emotional distress, loss of use of property and natural resources, and breach of contract.” Two other groups have subsequently filed separate lawsuits against the United Nations for the cholera epidemic.
The Irony: Flouting International Law
Beatrice Lindstrom, an IJDH staff attorney, says treaties give the United Nations legal immunity when the organization sends peacekeepers. Instead, it is supposed to organize a Standing Claims Commission to determine whether the United Nations can be held liable for damages against a person and, if so, for how much.
But Lindstrom says that UN officials didn’t organize a Standing Claims Commission in Haiti, nor have they done so in any of the countries in which they’ve launched peacekeeping missions in the past 66 years. In other words, if the United Nations does something wrong in a country where the organization has peacekeepers, there is simply nowhere for victims to turn.
Beatrice Lindstom (left) at the cholera demonstration outside the UN General Assembly in New York. (@BeaLindstrom)
The victims’ lawyers assert that the United Nations has breached the terms of its agreement, so the institution shouldn’t be able to claim immunity. “This question [of UN responsibility] has never really been asked before,” Lindstrom explains.
When I interviewed Lindstrom earlier this month, the two sides had sent written arguments to the federal court in the Southern District of New York. UN officials have asked the US Justice Department to argue their side, and in July, the United States asserted that the United Nations does have legal immunity. IJDH, BAI, and KKWT have in turn asked the court to grant oral arguments, but Lindstrom could not say when the request might be granted.
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