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United Nations Facing Backlash For Refusing To Compensate Victims Of Haiti’s Cholera Outbreak
February 26, 2013
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For two years now, Haiti has been devastated by a cholera epidemic that has killed nearly 8,000 people and made hundreds of others sick.

About one out of every 16 people in Haiti has been directly affected by it.

The epidemic started in October of 2010. And it's widely believed that it was caused by UN peacekeepers from Nepal, who brought the disease into the country.

Those peacekeepers were sent to Haiti to help with disaster relief after the 2010 earthquake, although they may not have known they were carrying the virus.

The Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), a group of lawyers based in Boston, filed a lawsuit on behalf of 5,000 cholera victims seeking compensation.

But last week, the United Nations claimed legal immunity and is refusing to compensate any of the victims or their families.

That decision has set off plenty of criticism.

Slate.com has a piece by Jonathan Katz entitled 'Humanitarian Malfeasance.' Katz was the Associated Press correspondent in Haiti from 2007 to 2011.

He's also the author of The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came To Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster.

Katz writes "International affairs can be complicated, but sometimes a case comes along that's so simple it's almost absurd."

He goes on to say, "...the U.N. neglected to adequately screen a contingent of soldiers coming from an active cholera outbreak in Nepal. Upon arrival, the soldiers were sent to a rural U.N. base, outside the quake zone and long known for leaking sewage into a major river system that millions of Haitians used to drink, bathe, wash, and farm."

"Within days of their arrival, people downstream began to die. The epidemic then exploded, sickening more than 647,000 people, and killing in its first year more than twice the number of people who died on 9/11."

Katz says UN officials tried to cover it up and "chose to lie, dissemble, destroy evidence, persuade allies to change the topic, and cajole critics."

In the decision to not compensate the victims, UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon cited a convention passed in 1946.

That convention essentially protects the UN from this kind of legal dispute in the countries in which it operates.

Critics say that's unacceptable. Kathie Klarreic is the author of Madame Dread: A Tale of Love, Vodou and Civil Strife in Haiti.

She's covered Haiti and lived there off and on since 1986. In a piece for the Miami Herald, Klarreic calls the UN decision "unconscionable and immoral."

She writes "That (the UN) devoted just a few lines to justify its rejection is as offensive as the offense itself" and goes on to say it's "not all about money. It's about lives, legacies and doing the right thing."

The UN has acknowledged that inadequate sanitation might have been a possible reason for the outbreak.

But it says the actual source of the cholera isn't clear, saying the epidemic was caused by several problems including water, sanitation and public health.

Jonathan Katz disputes that in his Slate piece writing...

"...scientists were soon able to confirm the source of the infection. They found it was a perfect match for the specific strain circulating 8,900 miles away in Nepal. There had never been a confirmed case of cholera in Haiti before."

And The Guardian points out that since 2010, "there has been substantial medical research, including full genome sequencing on the strain of cholera found in Haiti, which identified UN peacekeepers from Nepal as the source of the disease."

As well, in October 2010, Al Jazeera English did a piece showing raw sewage apparently draining from toilets at a UN base into a river just a few metres away.

Many people in a nearby town rely on the river water and became sick around this time. Take a look.

Even former U.S. President Bill Clinton has said the disease was brought to Haiti by a UN peacekeeper.

In its lawsuit, the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti asked the UN to build a national water and sanitation system to control the epidemic, pay compensation to victims, and make a public apology for its "wrongful acts".

Nicole Philips, of the IJDH, told The Guardian they were "not surprised by this at all. It's all very political".

Mario Joseph, the lead lawyer for the lawsuit, said "the United Nations can't have humanity and impunity at the same time."

The UN has promised to continue working to contain the epidemic, having spent $118 million so far. In December, it announced a $2.2 billion initiative to try to eradicate cholera in Haiti.

In spite of that, critics say there's a double standard happening.

In this piece for The Atlantic, Armin Rosen writes,"If a multinational corporation behaved the way the U.N. did in Haiti, it would be sued for stratospheric amounts of money."

The piece goes on to say, "this announcement was really a way of avoiding having to address any damages, ever. The U.N. has few legal obligations to anyone or anything other than itself, and it's not fighting the cholera allegations because it simply doesn't have to."

We've covered the situation in Haiti. Check out the related links below, including a clip from our interview with Olivia Wilde.

Related stories

Haiti: Olivia Wilde On The Humanitarian Impulse

Baseball In The Time Of Cholera: Documenting A Haitian Tragedy

Three Years After The Massive Earthquake, People In Haiti Said To Be No Better Off

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