BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – The United Nations has failed to explain why it will not pay compensation to thousands of cholera victims in Haiti or provide sufficient funds to combat the disease, even though U.N. peacekeepers on mission in the Caribbean nation have been identified as the likely source of the outbreak, say lawyers representing the victims.
The case has also sparked concern among politicians in the United States.
Lawyers at the Boston-based rights group, the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), have led an effort to claim compensation on behalf of 5,000 cholera victims and their families since the outbreak began in late 2010.
The group filed claims in November 2011 against the U.N., demanding hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation for cholera victims and a public apology.
The epidemic, which continues today, has killed 8,136 Haitians and infected more than 650,000, according to the latest figures from the Haitian ministry of health.
IJDH lawyers and U.S. Democrats have written to the U.N. several times, urging the world body to accept responsibility for the cholera epidemic and increase funding to address it by improving access to clean water and sanitation for Haitians.
“The U.N.’s latest explanation last week, in response to a letter of May 30 signed by 19 members of the House of Representatives, was a one-line sentence. They and the cholera victims deserve a better and more just response,” IJDH head Brian Concannon told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“There were also disingenuous and not quite accurate claims made about the U.N.’s progress in combating cholera that haven’t had impact on the ground,” Concannon, a human rights lawyer, said in a telephone interview from Boston.
He said the U.N. has refused to consider resolving the cholera victims’ claims outside of court, meet with victims or their lawyers, and set up a claims commission as required by its own treaty.
WHO’S TO BLAME?
Several scientific studies have tried to establish who was responsible for bringing cholera into Haiti and how the disease spread into the country’s main waterway.
An independent panel appointed by U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon to study the epidemic did not determine conclusively how cholera was introduced to Haiti. Its May 2011 report concluded that while the cholera bacteria did not originate “from the native environs of Haiti”, the outbreak was “not the fault of, or deliberate action of, a group or individual.”
However, a June 2011 study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said U.N. peacekeeping troops on mission in Haiti from Nepal, where cholera is endemic, were the likely cause of the outbreak.
The U.N. has said it is committed to tackling cholera in Haiti and the neighbouring Dominican Republic, where 440 people have died from the infectious disease, through a $2.2 billion donor aid programme known as the Hispaniola Initiative over the next 10 years, but critics say the amount is insufficient.
“We are dismayed that the United Nations has committed only $23.5 million for this initiative,” the 19 U.S. lawmakers wrote in the letter from May 30 to the U.N chief. “That is a mere one percent of the total funding required to fund the initiative in Haiti, alone.”
The U.N. has spent an additional $140 million since 2010 on cholera prevention projects including wastewater treatment plants and improvement of clean water supplies, which have resulted in significantly fewer cholera cases and reduced mortality rates.
Still, Concannon said, “$140 million to fight against cholera is not that much when you’re talking about hundreds of thousands of people exposed to the deadly disease and when you think about the U.N.’s overall budget.”
RISE IN CHOLERA CASES
With the start of the rainy and hurricane season, aid agencies say cholera cases are set to increase, with a 40 percent rise in Haiti’s cholera cases already reported between May and June of this year in Haiti, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
“Predictions suggest up to 100,000 people could be affected by the end of the year, while funding gaps have led to a serious decrease in the capacity to respond,” OCHA said in its latest report on Haiti.
Rights group IJDH says it will take the case against the U.N. to courts in Haiti, the U.S., or Europe.
“We’ve tried going through the internal mechanism of the U.N. We now have no choice but to take the U.N. to court to seek justice for victims and their families,” Concannon said.
“Lawyers are now preparing cases to take before national courts in New York on behalf of cholera victims and those who have lost close relatives to the disease. If we get to a national court, it’s a huge step in the direction to end impunity.”