Q+A: U.N. must take responsibility for Haiti cholera epidemic - rights group

by Anastasia Moloney | @anastasiabogota | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 10 January 2014 05:00 GMT

The U.N. would be more careful if it bore the consequences of its actions, says head of group that filed lawsuit against the world body on behalf of Haiti cholera victims

(Deletes reference to minimum compensation amount because IJDH says it is no longer seeking a minimum payment.)

BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Haiti is home to the largest cholera epidemic in the western hemisphere.

Nearly 8,500 Haitians have died from cholera since the water-borne disease broke out in October 2010. If current trends continue, it’s estimated 45,000 people could be affected by cholera this year. 

Last year, a Boston-based rights group, Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), filed a lawsuit against the United Nations on behalf of cholera victims in Haiti. The lawsuit maintains the cholera epidemic was introduced by U.N. peacekeeping troops brought to Haiti from Nepal.

Some experts say that because the U.N. enjoys treaty-based privileges and immunities, the lawsuit is likely to be dismissed.

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 Brian Concannon, head of IJDH, remains undeterred. He discusses why the lawsuit was brought forward against the U.N., what it hopes to achieve and how he sees it developing over the coming year.

Q: Why did IJDH decide to file a lawsuit against the U.N. in October 2013 on behalf of 5,000 Haitian cholera victims?

When the cholera outbreak began in October 2010, IJDH and our partner in Haiti, the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI), decided to do nothing. We felt that this was a humanitarian issue that required medical, and public health professionals, not lawyers.

The U.N.’s responsibility was so clear, and the damage so great, that I was confident that the organisation would take responsibility and install the clean water and sanitation infrastructure necessary to stop the cholera epidemic’s killing.

But six months later, the U.N. continued to deny its obvious responsibility, and there was no plan for installing the infrastructure. We decided that someone needed to step up and compel the U.N. to take responsibility, so we filed claims on behalf of 5,000 cholera victims with the U.N.’s internal proceedings, pursuant to the Status of Forces Agreement between Haiti and the U.N. When the U.N. rejected those claims last year, that opened the door for us to file a lawsuit in U.S. Federal Court.

Q: What is the strongest evidence provided in the lawsuit to show the U.N.’s alleged responsibility in causing the cholera outbreak in Haiti?

The strongest evidence of U.N. responsibility is the genetic tests that show a perfect match between the cholera strain in Haiti and the strain from the area of Nepal where the peacekeepers were trained before deployment to Haiti. But the scientists who have established the U.N.’s responsibility - including members of the U.N.’s own Panel of Experts - also rely on epidemiological data showing that the outbreak started in the Meye River just below the U.N. base. The most shocking evidence is film footage of sewage running off the U.N. base.

Q: What does the lawsuit hope to achieve?

The cholera lawsuit demands two things: a) install clean water and sanitation infrastructure that has been used to stop cholera epidemics for 150 years, and b) compensation for the victims, including children forced to drop out of school after the deaths of their parents.

On a broader level, we are trying to help the U.N. respond better to the vulnerable populations that host peacekeeping missions. The U.N. has acknowledged both that it has a responsibility to compensate people harmed by its operations and that it struggles to reduce those harms, especially from sexual assault. The U.N., like the rest of us, would be more careful if it bore the consequences of its actions.

Q: What is the current status of the lawsuit?

After filing a lawsuit, the next step is serving the papers on the adverse parties, so that they are aware of the suit’s existence. We have tried to serve the U.N. many times, but the organisation refuses to accept the service. We will soon ask the court to authorise an alternate method of service.

Q: What is IJDH’s strategy this year to get justice for cholera victims through the lawsuit against the U.N.?

Our principal strategy is to aggressively pursue the current U.S. case. We expect the U.N. to continue to do everything possible to prevent the cholera victims from getting their day in court, such as refusing service and challenging court jurisdiction. We will fight at every step in the U.S., but we are also preparing cases for other countries.

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