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Haiti Cholera Victims Threaten to Sue UN

Lawyers for victims slam shoddy rationale of UN's rejection of reparations for victims of the epidemic it brought

- Andrea Germanos, staff writer

Victims of the cholera epidemic in Haiti have given the UN 60 days to stop evading its moral and legal obligations and provide justice and reparations to the thousands affected by the disease it brought to the nation or they will sue.

In a letter dated May 7, lawyers for the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) wrote that the victims they represent

... seek reparations for injuries resulting from the UN’s negligent omission to adequately screen troops for cholera prior to deployment, and its reckless acts that caused untreated, contaminated human waste to leak into and poison Haiti’s central river, in accordance with the UN’s agreement to pay for its tortious liability.

The claim is seeking

1) compensation for cholera victims ($50,000 for each survivor and $100,000 for each bereaved family), 2) a nationwide response by the UN consisting of medical treatment for victims and clean water and sanitation infrastructure to control the epidemic, and 3) a public apology from the UN.

Their letter this week is in response to a UN statement in February formally rejecting the claims for compensation, stating, "the claims are not receivable pursuant to Section 29 of the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations."

The IJDH says this rejection is baseless, and called the "invocation of Section 29... arbitrary, self-serving and contrary to international principles of due process."

"Notably, Section 29 does not prescribe any type of claim as not receivable," they write.

Their letter says that

The UN is legally obligated to consider and settle claims filed by third parties for injury, illness and death attributable to the UN or its peacekeeping forces.

And notes that

The UN’s obligation to accept and respond to claims of liability for third-party personal injury and death attributable to the organization extends beyond the CPIUN [Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations] and SOFA [Status of Forces Agreement]. Your predecessor as UN Legal Counsel stressed that “[a]s a matter of international law, it is clear that the Organization can incur liabilities of a private law nature and is obligated to pay in regard to such liabilities.”

It continues:

In 1996, the Secretary-General observed that “the United Nations has, since the inception of peacekeeping operations, assumed its liability for damage caused by members of its forces in the performance of their duties.”

Beyond monetary reparations, the cholera victims want the UN to admit its guilt. 

Moreover, in addition to reparations in the form of a comprehensive water and sanitation program and just compensation for the victims, Petitioners seek a public acknowledgment and apology from the UN for the thousands of deaths and innumerable amount of suffering it has caused. The UN made no mention of this request in its response. 

IJDH director Brian Concannon said, "We are looking for an urgent and adequate response from the UN. Immunity cannot mean impunity."

The cholera epidemic has already killed over 8000 people and sickened over half a million in Haiti since its outbreak in the wake of the catastrophic earthquake of 2010.  The group notes that cholera continues to bring death to Haiti, and unless urgent action is taken, "hundreds of thousands of Haitians will continue to fall sick and die over the coming years."

In their "report card on UN implementation of their recommendations for cholera in Haiti" released last week, Boston- and Port-au-Prince-based Physicians for Haiti found that "Three recommendations that would have prevented UN introduction of cholera into Haiti and would prevent similar introduction in the future remain unimplemented. All three recommendations could be implemented at either no or minimal cost to the UN."

But cost may have nothing to do with the implementations.

Following the UN rejection of the cholera victims' claims this winter, Center for Economic and Policy Research co-director Mark Weisbrot said that the resources exist "to put an end to cholera in Haiti for less money than they are going to spend in the next year or two on keeping U.N. troops there. But they're in no rush to right the wrongs that they have done."

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