UN sued over Haiti cholera epidemic

Extreme poverty means people are still drinking from cholera-infected rivers, as Mark Doyle reports

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Lawyers representing victims of a cholera epidemic in Haiti have filed a lawsuit against the United Nations at a court in New York.

They say UN peacekeepers introduced cholera to Haiti in 2010. The disease killed more than 8,000 people and made hundreds of thousands sick.

The lawyers are demanding compensation of $100,000 (£62,000) for every person who died and $50,000 for each of those who became ill.

The UN says it has legal immunity.

Lawyers filed the suit at the US District Court in New York. They said they were left with no other option after the UN had rejected previous claims for compensation.

Analysis

I have rarely covered a story where the facts are so clear. Here are some.

Cholera is spread through human waste. A camp for UN soldiers dumped raw sewage near a river used for drinking water. The soldiers came from Nepal. Cholera is endemic there. Haiti did not have cholera for a century before late 2010 - when cases of the Nepali strain of the disease occurred near the camp.

But this story is not just about facts. It is about over 8,000 families in one of the poorest countries in the world who have lost loved ones. It is about a United Nations that tries to do good around the world but has, in Haiti, committed terrible errors.

And, yes, it is also about legal immunity for the UN - a body that says it has to be above "normal" laws or might not be able to operate as it does. But that immunity was surely never designed for a case like this. This story is no longer about facts. It is about moral choices.

"The UN refused to even consider them. We then felt we had no choice but to file in a national court," Brian Concannon, director of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, which is bringing the case, told the BBC.

BBC international development correspondent Mark Doyle says investigations have pointed strongly to leaking sewage at a camp for UN soldiers from Nepal, where cholera is endemic, as the origin of the outbreak in Haiti.

No cases of the bacterial infection, which causes diarrhoea, nausea, vomiting and muscle cramps, had been recorded in Haiti for a century until the outbreak in late 2010.

Then cases mounted quickly in an area near the camp.

Leading cholera expert Danielle Lantagne, who once worked for the UN, said in the past that the outbreak's "most likely source" was the UN camp.

In February, a spokesman for UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the petition for compensation was "not receivable" under a 1947 convention which grants the UN immunity for its actions.

Our correspondent says the UN's position is unlikely to change.

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