Turtle Bay

U.N. invokes diplomatic immunity on Haiti cholera epidemic

For nearly two and a half years, the United Nations has sought to skirt responsibility for a ravenous Haitian cholera epidemic that killed at least 8,000 Haitians — and sickened several hundred thousand more — since the first outbreak was detected in October 2010, downriver from a sewage outlet used by a contingent of Nepalese ...

For nearly two and a half years, the United Nations has sought to skirt responsibility for a ravenous Haitian cholera epidemic that killed at least 8,000 Haitians — and sickened several hundred thousand more — since the first outbreak was detected in October 2010, downriver from a sewage outlet used by a contingent of Nepalese blue helmets.

Today, Ban Ki-moon phoned Haitian president Michel Martelly to inform him that the United Nations has no intention, or legal obligation, to pay compensation to the families of Haiti’s cholera victims.

"In November 2011, a claim for compensation was brought against the United Nations on behalf of the victims of the cholera outbreak in Haiti," Ban’s spokesman Martin Nesirky told reporters on Thursday. "Today, the United Nations advised the claimants representatives that the claims are no receivable pursuant to section 29 of the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations."

Nesirky highlighted the U.N.’s role in trying to contain the spread of cholera, saying it has worked closely with Haitians "to provide treatment, improve water and sanitation facilities and strengthen prevention and early warning."

"The secretary general expresses his profound sympathy for the terrible suffering caused by the cholera epidemic, and calls on all partners in Haiti and the international community to work together to ensure better health and a better future for the people of Haiti," Nesirky said.

The Boston-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti filed the claim on behalf of the families of 5,000 victims, and is preparing claims on behalf of thousands more. Brian Concannon, the director of the organization, told Turtle Bay that the U.N. should be held liable for "negligent failure" to screen peacekeepers from a country known to have cholera and for the "reckless disposal of waste into Haiti’s largest water system."

Concannon said that while the United Nations has signed a status of forces agreement with Haiti that shields it from suits brought by Haitian courts, the global body has an obligation to provide "an alternative mechanism" for victims to seek redress. His group is now preparing to pursue a case in a national court — either within Haiti, the United States, the Netherlands, or Belgium — to persuade a judge not to enforce the immunity agreement on the grounds that the United Nations has not lived up to "its side of the bargain."

"It’s round two," he said.

The United Nations peacekeeping department has long maintained that a series of studies failed to present irrefutable evidence that U.N. peacekeepers were responsible for the outbreak. They argued that it would be more productive to invest the U.N.’s resources into trying to contain the spread of the disease rather than determining who was responsible for introducing cholera into Haiti for the first time in more than 100 years.

Following protests from Haitians, Ban commissioned a panel of independent medical experts to "investigate and seek to determine the source of the 2010 cholera outbreak in Haiti." The four-member team, headed by Dr. Alejandro Cravioto, head of the International Center for Diarrheal Disease Research in Dhaka, Bangladesh, provided strong circumstantial evidence hinting at a U.N. role but stopped just short of pinning the blame on the Nepalese peacekeepers.

The panel concluded, as Turtle Bay reported at the time, "that the disease was introduced into the Haitian population by human activity in the Meye Tributary, a branch of the Artibonite River, and quickly spread throughout the river delta, infecting thousands of Haitians along the way. At the time, Nepalese peacekeepers were stationed at a camp in Mierbalais, along the banks of the Meye, fueling suspicion that the waste of an infected peacekeeper had flowed into the river."

But the panel argued that the other forces contributing to the spread of the disease — poor sanitation and a dysfunctional health care system — were so varied as to make it impossible to identify a specific culprit. "The independent panel concludes that the Haiti cholera outbreak was caused by the confluence of circumstances as described above, and was not the fault of, or deliberate action of, a group or individual," read the report.

A U.S. cholera expert at Tufts Univeristy, Daniele Lantagne, who was a member of the U.N. panel, told the BBC last October that further scientific evidence pointed more conclusively towards the Nepalese peacekeepers. She said it is "most likely" that they were the source of the outbreak.

Jonathan Katz, a former Associated Press reporter who covered the cholera outbreak, said the U.N. has "spent the last year and change saying" they can’t talk about the cholera epidemic because the claims case was pending. But now, he said, the U.N. maintains that it won’t even consider the claim.

Katz, who authored the recent book on the Haiti relief effort, The Big Truck that Went By, said U.N.’s refusal to confront responsibility reflects a deeper concern that establishing precedent could open the door to a slew of lawsuits against the United Nations around the world.

"The United Nations is concerned about the precedent this would set for U.N. peacekeeping and the other work they do around the world," he said. "I can imagine a long line of people going around the world that would love to go after the United Nations."

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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