Sun | Aug 20, 2017

Appeals court upholds UN immunity from Haiti cholera suit

Published:Sunday | August 21, 2016 | 8:00 AM
In this October 19, 2011 file photo, a toddler receives treatment for cholera symptoms at a Doctors Without Borders, cholera clinic in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. A US appeals court has affirmed UN immunity from claims for the outbreak.

A United States federal appeals court has upheld the United Nations' immunity from a damage claim filed on behalf of 5,000 cholera victims who blame the UN for an epidemic of the deadly disease in Haiti.

In a decision issued late Thursday, the US 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in New York affirmed a lower court's January 2015 dismissal of a lawsuit brought in the worst outbreak of cholera in recent history.

"We have considered all of plaintiffs' arguments on appeal and find them to be without merit," the US appellate judges said.

The ruling came shortly after UN deputy spokesman Farhan Haq referred to the United Nations' "own involvement" in the introduction of cholera to Haiti.

It was a significant statement because the UN has for years kept silent about allegations its peacekeepers introduced cholera to Haiti. It has answered lawsuits on behalf of victims filed in US courts by claiming immunity under a 1946 convention.

Haq said in a statement that the UN needs to do "much more" to end the suffering of those affected and pledged that "a significantly new set of UN actions" will be presented publicly within the next two months.

But Haq reiterated that the UN's legal position in claiming immunity hasn't changed.

Brian Concannon, executive director of the Boston-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, said advocates for Haitian cholera victims will be watching the UN's actions closely. They have 90 days to decide whether to file an appeal to the US Supreme Court.

EFFECTIVEREMEDY

"We will decide how to proceed based on whether the UN's actions fulfil the cholera victims' rights to an effective remedy," Concannon said in a statement.

Since its introduction to Haiti in October 2010, cholera has killed more than 9,300 Haitians and sickened over 800,000. It showed up some 10 months after a devastating earthquake in the south of Haiti, deepening the country's misery at a time when it was ill-equipped to cope with another crisis. As of March, it was killing an average of 37 people a month.

The waterborne disease is now considered "endemic" in Haiti, meaning it's an illness that occurs regularly.

Researchers say there is ample scientific evidence that the disease was introduced to Haiti's biggest river by inadequately treated sewage from a base of UN peacekeepers from Nepal, one of the units that have rotated in and out of a multinational force in Haiti since 2004.

Haq wouldn't say whether reparations were under consideration.

Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and only 24 per cent of Haitians have access to a toilet. Sewage is rarely treated and safe water remains inaccessible to many.

At a dusty crossroads on the outskirts of Haiti's capital, local residents gathered on Thursday at a trash-clogged stream to wash clothes and bathe.

"So now they are going to find a way to clean the disease from the country? It's been here for years and it seems like it is here to stay," said labourer Jhony Nordlius as he pushed a wheelbarrow past a fetid canal, where children were splashing and collecting garbage.

Maxcilus Vale, who ekes out a living shining shoes by the trash-clogged waterway, was more hopeful about the UN's statement.

"Maybe now we'll get more sanitation and water treatment to help make cholera go away. I hope so, because it has harmed many people," said Vale, as he washed his socks in a roadside pool of stagnant water.

In December 2012, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced a US$2.27-billion initiative to help eradicate cholera in Haiti and the neighbouring Dominican Republic, which share the island of Hispaniola, but the ambitious 10-year plan is underfunded. According to a report last November, only US$307 million has been received.

Haq said the announcement of UN plans for new action to address cholera was made in response to a draft report by the UN special investigator on extreme poverty and human rights.

Ahead of its release, likely in late September, he said "we wanted to take this opportunity to welcome this vital report".

- AP