Haiti – Since 2010 nearly 770,000 people, 8% of the population has become infected in what scientists are calling “the largest cholera outbreak in modern times.” The disease, native to India, is said to have spread to the small island country sometime in 2010, after United Nations peacekeepers from Nepal served in the area.
In January of 2013, the United Nations confirmed these allegations for the first time. In the release, the United Nations noted that the camp hosting United Nations workers in Haiti either went to bathroom outside in the rivers and/or emptied their raw waste into the Artibonite river, where it then traveled down stream infecting thousands. This river is also the largest river in the country.
To date it is estimated that nearly 9,200 people have died, though recent evidence suggests that the death total in some regions may be three times higher than previously recorded.
A new study, released at the end of April, in Emerging Infectious Disease Medical Journal, revealed that “nearly three times more cholera deaths occurred in the first six months of the epidemic than officially recorded. In some hard-to-reach villages, researchers found, cholera killed 1 in every 20 residents in the early months of the outbreak.”
Dating as far back as 2015, families of more than 5,000 dead Haitian victims came together and filed an international class action lawsuit against the United Nations, demanding the organization put“end cholera by installing a national water and sanitation system; pay reparations to cholera victims and their families; and publicly apologize for bringing cholera to Haiti.” However, this lawsuit was immediately dismissed and thrown out of court by a New York state judge who ruled that “international treaties immunize the U.N. from lawsuits.” The United Nations happens to host their headquarters in New York City.
Despite their immunity from international courts at the time, there was little doubt of the U.N’s direct culpability in the the Haitian epidemic. In fact, even the independent researchers hired by the UN to investigate the outbreak concluded that the UN aid workers were likely the primary cause.
According to Daniele Lantagne of Tufts University, one such independent expert hired by the United Nations to conducts this investigation, she concluded that “I and the panel believe, and the scientific consensus is, that the most likely source was a peacekeeper or peacekeepers. There is not an alternative hypothesis that is credible. DNA analysis strongly suggests this outbreak was probably started by one or very few infected, asymptomatic individuals — I would guess one.“
After the conclusion of this investigation and subsequent lawsuit, the United Nations came out with a statements stating that “we certainly recognizes that this is an unfortunate and tragic humanitarian catastrophe…but the U.N. has absolute immunity … for a very important reason.” The UN was arguing why they have immunity for these types of thing in the first place, because forcing the UN to pay compensation to these families it would set a dangerous precedent, possibly opening the flood gates for people the world over to sue the UN for liability for other event around the world. This could potentially bankrupt the United Nations, whom is also for better or worse the worlds largest charitable and humanitarian organization.
However as the attorney representing the victims families, Beatrice Lindstrom argues that “the U.N. forfeited its legal immunity when it failed to launch an internal process to adjudicate the plaintiffs’ claims, as they say its own commitments require. The U.N.’s conditional immunity does not authorize impunity.” At the time, along with all of the families of cholera victims, Beatrice appealed the original decision and on March 1st 2016, a panel of three federal appellate court judges agreed to hear the case to discusses the U.N.’s liability in the Haitian epidemic.
Now, as of August 18th 2016, the United Nations has finally admitted direct culpability for the outbreak and have assumed full responsibility for the first time. According to the Office of Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, “the UN has become convinced that it needs to do much more regarding its own involvement in the initial outbreak and the suffering of those affected by cholera,“ You can read the full reports from the New York Times here.
Beatrice Lindstrom has explained to The Washington Post that acceptance of culpability could make it more likely plaintiffs will finally receive financial compensation, stating that “The UN has broad immunity from national courts, but that has always been conditioned on providing remedies out of court to victims who are harmed by UN operations.” She went on to add “It has been in breach of the treaty granting it immunity in the first place, so if the UN follows through on remedies, that would make questions of immunity mute.”
According to Mario Joseph, another human rights lawyer representing Haitian victims, “This is a major victory for the thousands of Haitians who have been marching for justice, writing to the UN and bringing the UN to court.” The United Nations says they will begin working with Haitian authorities and will attempt to negotiate a proper legal settlement. The UN has also promised to coordinate a mutually beneficial plan of action on the ground for victims in Haiti in immediate future. According to estimates, this could take at little as two months to play out.
This article (United Nations Finally Admits Culpability for Haiti’s Deadly Cholera Outbreak) is free and open source. You have permission to republish this article using a creative commons license with attribution to Brian Dunn and Alternative Medi4