U.N. faces U.S. lawsuit over Haiti's cholera epidemic

by Reuters
Wednesday, 9 October 2013 14:35 GMT

(Adds U.N. comment paragraph 5, U.N. rights chief statement paragraphs 6-7)

By Louis Charbonneau

UNITED NATIONS, Oct 9 (Reuters) - Human rights lawyers said on Wednesday they plan to sue the United Nations to seek compensation for Haitian victims of a cholera epidemic they blame on U.N. peacekeepers.

The decision to file suit in New York comes after the United Nations said earlier this year that it would not pay hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation claimed by cholera victims in impoverished Haiti, where the epidemic has killed over 8,300 people and sickened more than 650,000 since October 2010.

"The plaintiffs include Haitians and Haitian Americans who contracted cholera themselves as well as family members of those who died of the disease," the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti said in a statement.

The statement said lawyers were filing the suit in the U.S. District Court in New York's Southern District. There were no details about the amount of compensation that victims were seeking.

Asked to comment on the suit, U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq said: "We don't discuss claims brought against the U.N."

U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay said in Geneva on Tuesday that Haiti's cholera's victims should be compensated, though she did not say who should compensate them.

"I still stand by the call ... of those who suffered as a result of that cholera be provided with compensation," Pillay said.

An independent panel appointed by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to study the epidemic issued a 2011 report that did not determine conclusively how the cholera was introduced to Haiti.

But the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that evidence strongly suggested U.N. peacekeepers from Nepal were the source.

Cholera is an infection that causes severe diarrhea and can lead to dehydration and death. It occurs in places with poor sanitation.

In November 2011, the Boston-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti filed a petition at U.N. headquarters in New York seeking a minimum of $100,000 for the families or next-of-kin of each person killed by cholera and at least $50,000 for each victim who suffered illness or injury from cholera.

Ban's spokesman Martin Nesirky said in February of this year that the world body advised the representatives of the cholera victims that "the claims are not receivable pursuant to Section 29 of the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities."

Under Section 29 the United Nations is required to make provisions for "appropriate modes of settlement" of private law disputes to which the world body is a party or disputes involving a U.N. official who enjoys diplomatic immunity.

The Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti said at the time it was disappointed by the U.N. decision and would pursue the case in court.

It was not immediately clear how the issue of diplomatic immunity for the United Nations would impact the lawsuit being filed in the New York court.

Ban launched a $2.2 billion initiative in December 2012 to stamp out cholera over the next decade in Haiti. (Reporting by Louis Charbonneau; Editing by Mike Collett-White and Eric Beech)

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