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Haitian cholera victims file lawsuit in New York to hold UN responsible
Published on March 12, 2014 Email To Friend    Print Version

cholera_centre.jpg
A nurse prepares re-hydration fluid for patients at a cholera treatment center in Lester, a town two hours north of Port au Prince, Haiti (2012). Photo: MINUSTAH/Logan Abassi

NEW YORK, USA -- With clear evidence that the United Nations is responsible for the massive Haitian cholera contagion affecting many nations and injuring and killing citizens across the Western Hemisphere, 1,500 Haitian plaintiffs – including several New Yorkers and US citizens who lost family members to the disease – sued the United Nations on Tuesday in US District Court in Brooklyn.

The lawsuit seeks to force the UN to take responsibility, compensate victims, and bring critical sanitation to the devastated Haitian communities the UN was sworn to protect.

Included with court documents filed on Tuesday is evidence that clearly shows that the UN expressly waived its sovereign immunity – including in its 2004 agreement concerning the status of forces in Haiti, as well as another document that reveals the UN General Assembly specifically “assumed its liability for damage caused by members of its forces in the performance of their duties.”

This express waiver of immunity by the United Nations was missed by the United States government in a letter it filed with the court on Friday in a separate lawsuit by the nonprofit Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) over the cholera outbreak, which has now killed approximately 9,000 and sickened 700,000 and counting in Haiti.

The contagion has since spread to the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the United States, with at least three cases of cholera confirmed in New York City since 2010, and a sustained outbreak in Mexico.

Marie Laventure is one of 1,500 plaintiffs in the legal action. Laventure resides in Atlanta, is the sister of a Haitian US citizen of New York, and the oldest of 12 siblings: two residing in New York, one residing in Atlanta, and eight in Haiti. Some of her Haitian siblings are as young as ten years old. Marie and her family lost their father and stepmother to the UN Haiti cholera contagion outbreak. She and her US brother and sisters are sending money to help their young siblings survive.

“The death and injury caused by the UN cholera contagion in Haiti is breathtaking. 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,” Laventure said.

In addition to seeking damages for deaths and illnesses, and funding for sanitation and clean water, the lawsuit asks the court to declare that the UN is not immune from liability for the deaths it caused, and order the UN to abide by the claims process it agreed to set up to deal with the devastation.

The United Nations’ Independent Expert on Human Rights, Gustavo Gallon, a respected Columbian jurist, in his 2014 Human Rights in Haiti annual assessment, admits that the UN must take responsibility and compensate victims. Gallon called for “diplomatic difficulties” to be resolved to “stop the epidemic” and to “compensate victims fully.”

“Silence is the very worst response,” Gallon added.

The UN Human Rights chief, Navi Pillay, also stated that “someone need[s] to pay up for the suffering and havoc wreaked by cholera.”

Retired officials, including Canada’s ambassador to the UN, Stephen Lewis, have publicly agreed.

Among the documents referenced in the lawsuit is the United Nation’s 2004 agreement with Haiti, which explicitly waived sovereign immunity, stating that “[t]hird-party claims for . . . personal injury, illness or death arising from or directly attributed to [the Stabilization Agreement] shall be settled by the United Nations . . . and the United Nations shall pay compensation . . .”

Another document referenced in the lawsuit shows that the UN General Assembly expressly admits that international law requires the UN to pay compensation for damages caused through its operations – another express waiver of its immunity. This document was adopted on several occasions by the UN General Assembly and the UN Security Council as the official policy of the organization.

Prominent Attorneys Lead Effort

A group of prominent private attorneys are representing the plaintiffs. They include attorneys involved in the historic national tobacco lawsuits, the national BP gulf oil spill of 2010, and recent Goldman Sachs aluminum antitrust litigation. Local New York counsel in the action include Stanley Alpert, former Chief Assistant US Attorney for Environmental Litigation for the Eastern District of New York, who has also served as plaintiffs' liaison counsel in a federal multi-district litigation involving groundwater contamination.

“With all respect to the US government, anyone who thinks UN immunity is settled law in a case like this is sorely mistaken,” said Dr Tim Howard, one of the lead attorneys in the action. “Under both the UN convention and US statutes, immunity expressly waived cannot be unwaived. And the United Nations clearly and expressly waived its immunity from liability long before it caused this disaster.”

“The United Nations knew that disease, injury and death would result from a cholera contagion outbreak, and that conditions in Haiti were ripe for a cholera contagion outbreak if proper sanitation was not in place,” Howard added.

“It is inconceivable that the UN should hide behind a façade of immunity to escape responsibility for the deaths of thousands as a direct result of their poisoning the rivers of Haiti,” Alpert said. “Imagine if the UN had killed 9,000 in the heart of New York City or Paris. Would they cry ‘immunity’ then? The lack of regard for the value of Haitian lives is distressing and indefensible.”

New York City is home to one of the largest Haitian populations in the world outside of Haiti. In coming weeks, the group plans to hold public meetings in Brooklyn to discuss the case and the public health issues caused by the UN’s actions.

United Nations Caused Haitian Cholera Contagion Outbreak

According to the lawsuit, the United National hired a private contractor to ensure proper sanitation in Haiti, where nearly all get their water directly from wells. But the UN engineer-in-charge failed to properly manage the sanitation contractor, and in the end the contractor did nothing to provide an adequate sanitation system. This resulted in the dumping of cholera-infested feces from Nepalese peacekeepers into Haiti’s main river.

Investigations by the New England Journal of Medicine and the US Centers for Disease Control point to the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti base in Mirebalis as the source of the cholera outbreak. Epidemiological and genome studies have conclusively established the peacekeeping force's role, and United Nations Special Envoy former President Bill Clinton described the Stabilization Force as "the proximate cause of cholera.”

The Haitian cholera contagion outbreak still kills approximately 1,000 Haitians each year and sickens many thousands more.

Public Health Advocacy Institute executive director Mark Gottlieb agreed that the United Nations needs to be held accountable for this public health crisis stating, “Cholera, previously unknown in Haiti, is a severe and devastating disease that, in this case, was entirely preventable.”

Gottlieb continued stating, “It is deeply disappointing and shocking that the United Nations’ actions caused so much suffering, illness and death in Haiti. Establishing the United Nations’ accountability for this cholera contagion outbreak will advance the causes of human rights and public health, which are normally central tenets of the UN’s global mission.”

For more than three decades, the Public Health Advocacy Institute (PHAI) has sought to use law to reduce preventable death and disease through a combination of scholarly research and advocacy. It has a long history in the legal battles against the tobacco industry, has worked to marry human rights with tobacco control efforts in more than 20 countries, fights childhood obesity and advocates toreduce worker and consumer injuries. PHAI is a non-profit organization based at Northeastern University School of Law in Boston, MA.

“The public perception is that the UN is immune from legal action for its breaches of international legal standards,” Howard added. “The public perception is wrong. This will be a highly public battle, but we’re confident we are going to win. The law is on our side, the facts are on our side, but most importantly, justice for human rights is on our side. The world will know the craven manner with which the UN has run away from the devastation it has caused, and the court will respond, since it is clearly within its power to do so.”
 
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