The United Nations is facing a huge new lawsuit over the outbreak of cholera in Haiti that has widely been blamed on its peacekeepers, after 1,500 Haitian victims and their family members sued the international body in a federal court in Brooklyn in a class action.
The size of the suit substantially increases the stakes for the UN in this long-running saga. The plaintiffs seek to hold the UN responsible for the health catastrophe, as well as demanding compensation for victims and a UN-sponsored mission to help devastated Haitian communities.
The UN has consistently refused to accept any role in the disaster, and has claimed immunityfrom legal actions such as the one just lodged in Brooklyn, and a similar class action filed on behalf of a sample group of five Haitians last year. Latest figures suggest that more than 9,000 people have died in the outbreak, which has spread from Haiti to Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Puerto Rico, with a total of about 700,000 having been sickened.
There have also been at least confirmed cases of cholera in New York which is home to one of the largest communities of Haitians outside the Caribbean nation.
The lawsuit alleges that the cholera outbreak resulted from “the negligent, reckless, and tortious conduct of the … United Nations; its subsidiary, the United Nations Stablization Mission in Haiti; and its officers… The sickness, death and continual ongoing harm from cholera suffered by Haiti’s citizens are a direct result of the UN’s multiple systematic failures.”
The legal action chronicles the mounting evidence that UN peacekeepers from Nepal carried with them the Asian strain of cholera when they arrived in Haiti after the January 2010 earthquake. The outbreak, which began in October of that year, was the first instance of cholera in Haiti for at least 150 years.
The lawsuit catalogues what it claims were the UN’s negligent actions. UN troops coming from Nepal, where cholera is endemic, were not screened for the disease.
The UN mission hired a private contractor to ensure sanitary conditions for its force in Haiti, but the contractor was poorly managed and failed to provide adequate infrastructure at the UN camp in Mirebalais. As a result, contaminated sewerage was deposited in the Meille river, a tributary of the Artibonite, Haiti’s longest and most important river.
Crucially, the lawsuit argues that the UN is not immune from liability in such cases. It points out that acceptance of liability “was an express condition agreed to by the United Nations when it created Status of Forces Agreements such as the one which permitted it to enter Haiti.”
The first named plaintiff, Marie Laventure, is a Haitian living in Atlanta, Georgia, who has eight siblings still living in Haiti. She lost her father and stepmother to the cholera contagion.
In a statement, she said: “The death and injury caused by the UN cholera contagion in Haiti is heartbreaking. It has taken my parents and is threatening the lives of my young brothers and sisters in Haiti. Justice demands UN accountability for violating the most important human right, the right to live.”