In October 2010, the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) introduced a cholera epidemic that has infected hundreds of thousands (approximately 1 in every 20 Haitians) and killed over 7,000 Haitians in 18 months.
In November 2011, the BAI and IJDH filed a groundbreaking case against the United Nations (UN) on behalf of 5,000 Haitian cholera victims demanding accountability for the cholera epidemic in Haiti. The case demands that the UN:
- Install a national water and sanitation system that will control the epidemic;
- Compensate for individual victims of cholera for their losses; and
- Issue a public apology from the United Nations for its wrongful acts.
Click here to read our Petition for Relief | Cliquez ici pour lire notre demande
The UN continues to deny responsibility despite overwhelming evidence of its wrongdoing and mounting public pressure for accountability and action.
The cholera litigation is one of the largest cases to seek justice for UN wrongdoing in the organization’s history. This case has universal implications beyond Haiti because it challenges the UN to establish mechanisms to uphold its commitment to be a global leader in accountability and promotion of human rights for all.
The UN’s Role in Haiti’s Cholera Epidemic
Cholera exploded in Haiti in October 2010, shortly after the arrival of a new battalion of peacekeepers from Nepal, a country where cholera is endemic. Prior to their arrival, the CDC reports that Haiti had not experienced a cholera outbreak in over two centuries. The peacekeepers were neither tested nor treated for cholera prior to deployment to Haiti, despite the UN’s knowledge that Nepal was experiencing a surge in infection at the time, and that Haiti was extremely vulnerable to cholera.
The peacekeepers were stationed on a base in rural Mirebalais that maintained dangerous sanitation conditions, allowing human waste to contaminate a tributary that runs just meters from the base into the Artibonite River, Haiti’s primary water source. Neighbors in the area reported foul stenches stemming from the camp, and a later UN investigation revealed that the sewage piping at the base was “haphazard” and “inadequate,” and that all base wastes were dumped into an open-air unfenced pit.
Legal Basis for UN Liability
The UN is legally responsible because its recklessness directly caused foreseeable harm to victims. As microbial geneticist Paul Keim put it, “it was like throwing a lighted match into a gasoline-filled room.”
The following UN failures form the basis for our legal case:
- Failing to screen troops for cholera infection prior to deployment from Nepal, a country where cholera is endemic and which had just reported a surge in infections;
- Failing to maintain its sanitation facilities and waste disposal at the Mirebalais camp in Haiti, allowing contaminated human waste to run into the Meille, a tributary of the Artibonite River. The Artibonite is Haiti’s longest and most important river; it is a critical source of water for tens of thousands of Haitians who rely on it for drinking, bathing, washing clothes, and irrigation; and
- Failing to take immediate corrective action to properly address the outbreak of disease, willfully delaying investigation and obscuring discovery of the outbreak’s source at the cost of Haitians’ lives.
In legal terms, these failures constitute negligence, gross negligence, recklessness, and deliberate indifference for the lives of Haitian people.
The evidence that UN malfeasance caused the cholera outbreak in Haiti is overwhelming and well documented. Numerous independent scientific studies, including studies by the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, by one of the world’s leading cholera epidemiologists Dr. Renaud Piarroux, and by a panel of independent experts appointed by the UN, all point to MINUSTAH as the source of the cholera epidemic. DNA testing shows that the cholera strain that is responsible for the epidemic is a perfect match to a strain active in South Asia. Furthermore, many witnesses have reported on the poor sanitation conditions on the base, including members of the neighboring community, international journalist, official investigators, and the UN-appointed panel of independent experts.
The Petitioners are over 5,000 Haitian victims of cholera. They are individuals who are filing a claim (a) for their own injuries from cholera; (b) as parents on behalf of their minor children who contracted cholera; or (c) as next-of-kin on behalf of family members who died from cholera. Most Petitioners are from the Mirebalais, St. Marc, Hinche, and Port-au-Prince regions of Haiti.
Their injuries and deaths occurred beginning October 21, 2010, and since that time, cholera has infected about one in twenty Haitians. It has disproportionately impacted people who are poor and vulnerable, especially female heads of households and pregnant women. The Petitioners are only a small segment of those affected by cholera, but our clients include farmers, teachers, and caretakers whose injuries or death have left families without means to meet their basic needs. They include people like Claudine*, who lost her father and the family’s main breadwinner to cholera and spent her life savings to retrieve his body from a mass grave and provide him a proper burial.
*Name changed to protect client’s identity
Where will the cholera case be heard?
The BAI and IJDH filed the claims with MINUSTAH’s claims unit in Haiti, and with the Secretary-General in New York. MINUSTAH’s operations in Haiti are governed by a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which affords MINUSTAH broad protections from actions in Haitian courts. To balance this immunity, the SOFA requires the establishment of an independent Standing Claims Commission to hear claims and compensate victims who have been injured by UN activities. Despite this requirement, no commission has been established during MINUSTAH’s eight years in Haiti. In fact, no Standing Claims Commission has been established in over 60 years of UN peacekeeping anywhere, even though most SOFAs require one. The Petitioners request a fair, transparent and independent hearing of their claims.
The case is currently undergoing review by the UN’s Office of Legal Affairs at UN headquarters in New York. International human rights law guarantees a victim’s right to an effective remedy, which includes fair and transparent adjudication of claims by an impartial body and reparations. The UN thus has a duty to respond to the claims by either providing reparations or allowing the claims to be heard by a fair and independent forum. A failure to fulfill this duty threatens to deprive Haitians of the legal protections that the Haitian Constitution, Haitian law, international law as reflected in the Draft Articles on the Responsibility of International Organizations and UN treaty obligations.
If the UN does not respond to the petitioners’ case within a reasonable time, the BAI and IJDH plan to file a civil case in a judicial court. We are working in close collaboration with a team of top litigators in the United States and Haiti, including Kurzban Kurzban Weinger Tetzelli & Pratt, P.A., who is co-counsel on the case, and Wilmer Hale, LLP, who are providing pro bono legal advise to prepare the case for litigation in a domestic court.
The UN Response
In December 2011, the UN Office of Legal Affairs acknowledged receipt of the Petition of Relief and promised a response “in due course.” UN spokespersons consistently refuse to answer basic inquiries about the status of the claims.
In the media, the UN denies any responsibility for starting the cholera epidemic. It claims that a “confluence of factors,” including Haiti’s weak sanitation and health infrastructure, was responsible for causing the epidemic. This is a legally invalid defense. The weakness of Haiti’s health, water and sanitation systems were pre-existing conditions that were well known before the outbreak. Following the 2010 earthquake, a chorus of public health experts warned that outbreaks of water-borne diseases, especially cholera, would have disastrous consequences. Haiti’s vulnerability is precisely what made the cholera epidemic a directly foreseeable consequence of the UN’s reckless release of contaminants into Haiti’s waterways. Just as someone who plays with matches in a dry field cannot blame the dry field when a wildfire breaks out, the UN cannot point to Haiti’s underlying vulnerability as a defense for its own recklessness.
The UN also claims that it is impossible to be certain about the origins of cholera in Haiti. This contradicts extensive independent investigations that conclusively place blame on the UN and have “closed the book ” on the question of the epidemic’s origins on a molecular level. Independent scientists, including the UN’s Independent Experts, have thoroughly debunked alternative environmental hypotheses about the source of the epidemic. Given the abundance of evidence and widespread consensus among experts about the UN’s responsibility for starting the cholera epidemic, the UN’s defenses are highly unlikely to pass muster in a court of law.
Scientific Reports Establishing UN Responsibility:
- Renaud Piarroux, Understanding the Cholera Epidemic
- UN Independent Panel Report
- Harvard Cholera Group, The Origin of the Haitian Cholera Outbreak Strain (NEJM)
- Freirichs et al., Nepalese Origin of Cholera Epidemic in Haiti
- Keim et al., Population Genetics of Vibrio Cholerae from Nepal in 2010: Evidence on the Origin of the Haitian Outbreak