Conflict & Justice

UN won't take responsibility for Haiti's cholera epidemic


Cholera patients are pictured in a Doctors Without Borders clinic in Delmas, Haiti. The epidemic is caused by dirty drinking water, and is said to have been brought to Haiti after the devastating earthquake in 2010 by UN peacekeepers from Nepal. A case against the UN charging negligence has stalled, and the UN announced its legal immunity on Feb. 21.



The UN announced yesterday it was invoking legal immunity in a case regarding the deadly 2010 cholera outbreak in Haiti, said by experts to have been caused by UN peacekeepers from Nepal.

Secretary General Ban Ki Moon spoke with Haitian President Michel Martelly by phone yesterday to say that the international body would not only decline to take responsibility for the epidemic, but also that it would not compensate claimants in the case against the UN, reported the Guardian.

Nearly 8,000 people have died from cholera in Haiti in the past two years and tens of thousands have been affected by it. The case, which is is being handled by Boston-based group Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), has more than 15,000 plaintiffs who joined together in an official complaint against the UN in November, 2011, looking for compensation and charging the UN with "negligence, gross negligence, recklessness, and gross indifference," GlobalPost reported in July.

Now it seems the case may not go forward as planned.

UN spokesperson Martin Nesirky announced at his noon briefing yesterday the UN was immune to this kind of legal action because of an obscure and little-used piece of one section of a 1946 document, the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the UN. 

More from GlobalPost: Cholera case against UN stalls in Haiti

The statement issued yesterday reiterated the United Nations' work "to provide treatment, improve water and sanitation facilities, and strengthen prevention and early warning" and expressed the secretary general's "profound sympathy for the terrible suffering caused by the cholera epidemic."

The IJDH said it was disappointed by the UN decision and that it would now pursue the case in court in either Haiti, the United States, or Europe, according to Reuters.

"It's also disappointing that it took them 15 months to come up with a basically one line rejection that was probably what they would have done had they responded the day after they received our complaint," said IJDH director Brian Cocannon.

"The UN is passing up an opportunity to stop cholera's killing," he said, adding: "The UN is passing up an opportunity to provide leadership in advancing the rule of law."

The RIGHTS blog's Jason Hayes reported in July that the case had stalled and that if it were to fail, there would be little recourse, as there is no higher international body than the UN. There is also no precedent for the UN taking responsibility for actions of peacekeepers in host nations.

More from GlobalPost: Haiti's cholera epidemic twice as bad as predicted

Experts say the strain of cholera found in Haiti is identical to one found in Nepal, linking UN peacekeepers to spreading the disease in Haiti when they came from Nepal for emergency assistance after the 2010 earthquake.

According to the Guardian, the UN has spent a total of $118 million on medical equipment, health networks, water and sewerage improvements, health education at schools and other programs designed to stem the cholera crisis in Haiti. 

For more of our coverage of Haiti, check out our Special Report "Fault Line: Aid, Politics and Blame in Post-Quake Haiti."