Haitian Cholera Victims Seek Justice

Source: Haiti Relief and Reconstruction Watch

The Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) and Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) held a press conference today in New York regarding the complaint [PDF] they filed Thursday on behalf of 5,000 cholera victims seeking damages from the UN. The complaint states that

The cholera outbreak is directly attributable to the negligence, gross negligence, recklessness and deliberate indifference for the health and lives of Haiti’s citizens by the United Nations (“UN”) and its subsidiary, the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (“MINUSTAH”).

IJDH Director Brian Concannon explained on Democracy Now! this morning:

“We’re hoping that this is the case that’s too big to fail. That the evidence against the United Nations is so overwhelming here that the U.N. will have no choice but to finally take responsibility for its malfeasance.” “What we’re asking for, what our clients are asking for, is the U.N. and international community to step up and to give Haiti the sanitation infrastructure it needs to stop the epidemic.”

The AP’s Trenton Daniel summed up the goals of the complaint in an article today:

Concannon said he hoped the U.N. mission would set up a tribunal to evaluate the claims filed on behalf of the cholera victims. He also said he hoped the U.N. force would fund and create a lifesaving program that would provide sanitation, potable water and medical treatment. He also said he wants a public apology.

“We’re obviously hoping that the U.N. will step up and do the right thing,” he said by telephone.

If that doesn’t happen, the group plans to file the claims in a Haitian court, he said.

As the complaint [PDF] notes, the UN has failed to provide Haitians with the mechanisms they need to seek redress that are required under the Status of Forces Agreement governing MINUSTAH’s legal status:

the UN has failed to establish a standing claims commission as required by the Status of Forces Agreement (“SOFA”).  Under the SOFA, the claims commission is the forum that has jurisdiction to hear  civil  claims of Haitians injured by MINUSTAH’s actions.  The UN has yet to establish this commission, leaving victims without a clear route to seek accountability and relief.

As ABC News’ Matthew Mosk and Rym Montaz reported, IJDH’s complaint was “filed with the UN under the rules established when the international body first deployed peacekeepers to Haiti.” The complaint

describes how cholera is endemic in Nepal, how new Nepalese troops arrived in the village of Meille in October of 2010, how the troops failed to maintain sanitary conditions at their encampment, how witnesses described dark plumes of refuse leaching into a major waterway, and how cholera exploded in the region near the Meille camp in the weeks after their arrival.

Further, it cites numerous independent studies that match the strain of cholera to the one in Nepal using DNA and other evidence. One study, published in the medical journal The Lancet in July, found that all the evidence pointed to the Nepalese UN troops.

The UN’s response to the evidence that MINUSTAH troops had introduced the cholera strain, as we’ve noted over the past year, has been one of denial. Even in September, as ABC News reported, Anthony Banbury, the assistant secretary general for field support said, “We don’t know if it was the U.N. troops or not. That’s the bottom line.”

But the complaint does not equivocate on MINUSTAH’s responsibility, and it also suggests that more complaints are to come:

The conduct of the UN and MINUSTAH has  caused severe injury to and death of the country’s citizens.  In this petition and others to follow, the victims seek effective remedy.  They seek a fair and impartial hearing.

For their part, the cholera survivor petitioning the UN constitute a diverse group. From the complaint:

They are individuals who are filing a claim (a) for their own injuries from cholera; (b) as parents on behalf of their minor children who contracted cholera; or (c) as next-of-kin on behalf of family members who died from cholera. Most Petitioners are from the Mirebalais,  St. Marc, Hinche, and Port-au-Prince regions of Haiti.

They include, for example,

the daughter of a man who was the sole provider for her family. The father fell sick in the middle of the night with continuous diarrhea. His family rushed him to the Cholera Treatment Center in Mirebalais. After three days, his condition worsened and he was transferred to the hospital. There, the daughter watched as her father lay still for hours until he died.  The daughter and her family are now struggling to survive without any financial support.