PORT-AU-PRINCE – Advocates for Haitian victims of the deadly cholera epidemic that first afflicted their country three years ago said today they were taking the extraordinary step of suing the United Nations, asserting that the organization’s peacekeeping force in Haiti was responsible for introducing the disease through sewage contamination from its barracks.
The lawsuit, which the advocates filed in Federal District Court in Manhattan this morning, will be the strongest action they have taken in pressing the United Nations to acknowledge at least some culpability for the outbreak of cholera, a highly contagious scourge spread through human faeces, and which had been largely absent from Haiti for 100 years.
Cholera has killed more than 8,300 Haitians and sickened more than 650,000 in the earthquake-ravaged country, the poorest in the Western Hemisphere, sin ce it first reappeared in October 2010. While the worst of the epidemic has eased, it still kills about 1,000 Haitians a year.
United Nations officials have said they are committed to eradicating the cholera, but they have not conceded that the organization was inadvertently responsible for causing it. They also have asserted diplomatic immunity from any negligence claims, a position that has deeply angered many Haitians who consider it a betrayal of United Nations principles.
Haitian leaders, while dependent on the United Nations to help maintain stability and provide other important services, have also expressed unhappiness over the cholera issue. In an address last Thursday at the annual United Nations General Assembly opening session, Haiti’s Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe spoke of what he called the “moral responsibility” of the United Nations in the outbreak, and said the efforts to combat it had been far from sufficient.
Forensic studies, including one ordered by the United Nations, have identified the culprit bacteria as an Asian strain imported to Haiti by Nepalese members of the United Nations peacekeeping force, known as the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti, which was first authorized in 2004 and maintains about 8,700 soldiers and police officers there, drawn from more than three dozen member states.
The forensic studies have also linked the spread of the cholera to a flawed sanitation system at the Nepalese peacekeeper base that contaminated a tributary that feeds Haiti’s largest river, used by Haitians for drinking and bathing. (New York Times)