UNITED NATIONS — UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Friday acknowledged a federal appellate court’s decision upholding the world body’s immunity from liability for the cholera outbreak in Haiti that has taken up to 10,000 lives since an earthquake in January 2010.
But Ban — whose response came as his own special rapporteur reportedly said the deadly outbreak would not have occurred but for the UN’s presence and as the UN acknowledged some role — also said the UN was creating a relief package for victims.
“The Secretary-General deeply regrets the terrible suffering the people of Haiti have endured as a result of the cholera epidemic,” said Farhan Haq, a spokesman for Ban, addressing reporters Friday at the UN’s Manhattan headquarters.
“The United Nations has a moral responsibility to the victims of the cholera epidemic and for supporting Haiti in overcoming the epidemic and building sound water, sanitation and health systems,” he added.
The reaction to the lawsuit came on the heels of a statement in which the UN seemed to acknowledge some role in the outbreak. Haq said earlier this week in a response to an inquiry by The New York Times that “over the past year, the U.N. has become convinced that it needs to do much more regarding its own involvement in the initial outbreak and the suffering of those affected by cholera.”
The Times reported that a special rapporteur, New York University law professor Philip G. Alston, said in a confidential report recently that the disease would not have spread “but for the actions of the United Nations.”
UN officials have long been dogged by a sweeping lawsuit representing about 5,000 U.S. and Haitian citizens that charged the UN was liable to compensate victims of the cholera outbreak. The disease by some estimates, has struck more than 800,000 people.
The decision Thursday by a three-judge panel of the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a decision in January 2015 by the US District Court for the Southern District of New York, which dismissed the lawsuit on procedural grounds: It decided only whether the UN was immune.
The court did not decide the case on the merits of its claim that a contingent of the UN’s peacekeeping mission, which arrived after the earthquake, had introduced cholera when Nepalese soldiers contaminated waters of a tributary to the Artibonite River, which serves as a primary water source for Haiti’s population centers.
That court relied on a provision of the UN Charter that states “the UN “shall enjoy immunity from every form of legal process except insofar as in any particular case it has expressly waived its immunity.”
Further, “the District Court reasoned,” the appellate justice wrote in the most recent decision, “that, because no party contended that the UN has expressly waived its immunity, the UN was ‘immune from plaintiffs’ suit.’ ”
The court noted, flatly, that: “We have considered all of plaintiffs’ arguments on appeal and find them to be without merit.”
But Haq reiterated that the UN would do more to help victims, with international support, and that the world body would unveil a program within the next two months.
“Sustained efforts by national authorities and the international community have contributed to a 90 percent reduction in the number of cases since the peak in 2011,” Haq said. “However, eliminating cholera from Haiti will take the full commitment of the Haitian government and the international community and, crucially, the resources to fulfill our shared duty.”
Officials at Haiti’s mission to the UN could not be reached for comment.
Brian Concannon, executive director of the Boston-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, which represents the plaintiffs, said his group would be monitoring the UN’s progress. He noted plaintiffs have 90 days to respond to the decision and file an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“We will decide how to proceed based on whether the U.N.’s actions fulfill the cholera victims’ rights to an effective remedy,” Concannon said. “Our goal has always been to secure remedies for victims, whether in or out of court and we will keep working through all available forums until that occurs.”