Attorneys for 1,500 people who claim they or their loved ones suffered the effects of a cholera breakout in Haiti filed a lawsuit in federal court in Brooklyn against the United Nations on Tuesday, saying the global body is responsible for their illness and should compensate the victims of the epidemic.
"The death and injury caused by the UN cholera contagion in Haiti is breathtaking," said Marie Laventure of Atlanta, the lead plaintiff, who lost her father and stepmother in the 2010 outbreak. "It has taken my parents and is threatening the lives of my young brothers and sisters in Haiti. Justice demands UN accountability for violating the most important human right, the right to live," she said in a prepared statement.
Cholera devastated the island nation in the fall of 2010, 10 months after the country experienced an earthquake, according to the lawsuit and UN officials. The disease, which stems from poor sanitation, has claimed 9,000 lives by some estimates, and sickened hundreds of thousands more.
The lawsuit, which comes on the heels of another one filed in October, claims the disease was introduced to Haiti by a group of infected UN peacekeepers when a contractor neglected to provide adequate sanitation services. The problem, the lawsuit contends, contributed to the contamination of a river that Haitians use to bathe and wash items.
Stephane Dujarric, spokesman for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, on Tuesday declined to address the lawsuit when asked about it by reporters.
"We're not going to comment on any ongoing litigation concerning Haiti," he said. "The legal issues are the legal issues, and in parallel we continue to work with the government of Haiti on the issue of cholera eradication."
Advocates for the plaintiffs said the United Nations should pay damages and provide funds for sanitation and clean water.
"The United Nations knew that disease, injury and death would result from a cholera contagion outbreak, and that conditions in Haiti were ripe for a cholera contagion outbreak if proper sanitation was not in place," said Tim Howard, one of the lead attorneys in the litigation.
Ban, according to a report by The Associated Press, has previously claimed the UN is immune from liability, but the plaintiffs believe the UN is responsible and must pay.
"It is inconceivable that the UN should hide behind a facade of immunity to escape responsibility for the deaths of thousands as a direct result of their poisoning the rivers of Haiti," said Stanley N. Alpert, former chief assistant U.S. Attorney for environmental litigation for the Eastern District of New York. "Imagine if the UN had killed 9,000 in the heart of New York City or Paris. Would they cry 'immunity' then? The lack of regard for the value of Haitian lives is distressing and indefensible."
An independent UN expert panel concluded that "This explosive spread was due to several factors, including the widespread use of river water for washing, bathing, drinking and recreation," adding there was "regular exposure of agricultural workers to irrigation water from the Artibonite River."
That group concluded however that "the Haiti cholera outbreak was caused by the confluence of circumstances as described above, and was not the fault of, or deliberate action of, a group or individual."