Haitians are still stinging from the dismissal last February by the United Nations of their claim for justice on behalf of hundreds of thousands of people who have fallen ill and 8,000 who have died and continue to die since UN peacekeeping troops leaked raw sewage into the Artibonite River.
Within days of renewed UN presence in Haiti after the earthquake in January 2010, a disease never before seen on the island suddenly became a raging epidemic: Cholera.
The Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) held an event last week in Boston to raise awareness about Haiti’s cholera crisis and to gain support for their legal case against the UN, in conjunction with the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) in Haiti, as they continue to demand water sanitation, compensation for victims, and a public apology from the UN.
The IJDH event featured the award-winning movie “Baseball in the Time of Cholera,” followed by a panel discussion moderated by Haitian journalist Charlot Lucien and which featured local community leaders Marie St. Fleur, Esq., Boston Mayor Thomas Menino’s chief of advocacy and strategic investments; state Rep. Linda Dorcena Forry; Jean Ford Figaro, MD, health education coordinator at Boston Medical Center; and Brian Concannon, Jr., Esq., director of IJDH.
In November 2011, IJDH filed a petition at the UN headquarters in New York seeking $100,000 for the families or next-of-kin of each person killed by cholera and $50,000 for each victim who suffered illness or injury from cholera. After a 15 month delay and after 3,000 additional deaths, the UN announced that Haitian claims for compensation “weren’t receivable” under article 29 of the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations.
The Guardian reports, “This is not the first time that the UN has invoked its own immunity, but it is a highly unusual move made more controversial by the extreme distress in Haiti to which it relates.”
Award-winning journalist Jonathan Katz describes in his book, “The Big Truck that Went By” how the UN actively discouraged and even impeded journalists and public health investigators attempting to trace the source of the disease. The UN never admitted responsibility, even as a UN-commissioned report left little doubt. Adrian Walker reports in the Boston Globe:
“Among the peacekeepers dispatched in the wake of the Haiti earthquake was a team from Nepal, a country that was then suffering an outbreak of cholera. They brought the disease with them, and it spread when raw sewage from their camp found its way to a major river… A few months after that, tests confirmed that it matched the strain afflicting the Nepalese.”
On November 15, 2010 a riot broke out in Cap-Haïtien. Protesters demanded that the Nepalese brigade of the UN leave the country. At least 5 people were killed in the second day of riots, including one UN personnel. During the third day of riots UN personnel were accused of shooting at least 5 protestors but denied responsibility. On the fourth day of demonstrations against the UN presence, police fired tear gas into a camp for Internally Displaced Persons in the capital.
Given the UN’s assertion of immunity in Haiti, finding a court willing to sue the UN will be a major challenge.
“If we can get them into a courtroom, the case itself is easy,”
Concannon insists. “Their liability is so obvious.”
Armin Rosen writes in the Atlantic, “If a multinational corporation behaved the way the UN did in Haiti, it would be sued for stratospheric amounts of money. And that’s just for starters: Were Unilever or Coca-Cola responsible for a cholera outbreak that killed 8,000 people and infected 640,000 more, and for subsequently covering up its employees’ failure to adhere to basic sanitation standards, it is likely their executives would have difficulty visiting countries claiming universal legal jurisdiction.”
Nicole Philips, speaking in IJDH’s office in Haiti, noted that almost three times as many people had died in the continuing crisis as in the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
Cholera is projected to kill as many as 1,000 people a year until it is eradicated. Haiti’s health ministry reported a spike in cases nationwide in December 2012 and January 2013, with active outbreaks continuing. Hospitalizations (2,300 per week) and deaths (40 per week) have tripled since Hurricane Sandy struck the island, causing more deaths than the cyclone took in all countries combined.
The cost of building the long overdue water sanitation system Haiti needs in order to stop the spread of cholera is estimated at $2.2 billion.
Concannon argued, “They have a peacekeeping force in Haiti that costs $650 million a year, even though there hasn’t been a war in Haiti in our lifetime. If they cut that force in half, that would free up $325 million to fight cholera… $325 million a year would solve the problem.”
Alok Pokharel, a legal fellow at IJDH told the Dorchester Reporter:
“Cholera remains a threat to the lives of most Haitians and a key challenge to the government of Haiti. Victims need immediate attention from the government of Haiti and the international community, including the Haitian community in the US, to speak out against the UN’s injustice. Standing up against the UN is an utmost necessity if victims are to get justice and Haiti is to get protection from future death and sickness… We urge every Haitian in Boston and stakeholders to help create momentum in pushing the UN to accept its liabilities.”
“No one should have to die from a disease that can be avoided with soap and water, and the collective will to make them available,” writes Curt Welling, President of AmeriCares in a letter to the New York Times.
“Cholera, which spreads through contamination of food or water, can be prevented with good sanitation. It’s even easier to treat: Medicine is usually not required, just the speedy replacement of lost fluids,” notes Katz.
The Guardian reports, “While rebuffing the compensation claims, the UN has vowed to continue its efforts to contain the epidemic. So far the UN has spent $118m on medical equipment, health networks, water and sewerage improvements, health education at schools and other programs designed to stem the crisis.”
A Haitian man, who lost his 5-year-old daughter to cholera, told Al Jazeera, “When you lose a child, you never know what the child might have become. Maybe he or she may have saved this family from this misery.”