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Haiti Cholera Victims Demand UN Payment

Demonstrators dance around a fake coffin with the UN initials on it during a protest against the United Nations, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, October 19, 2011.
Demonstrators dance around a fake coffin with the UN initials on it during a protest against the United Nations, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, October 19, 2011.
Margaret Besheer

Lawyers representing more than 5,000 victims of Haiti’s cholera outbreak have presented the United Nations with a petition demanding millions of dollars in compensation and an apology.

The epidemic, which has been blamed on Nepalese peacekeepers, has killed more than 6,600 Haitians and sickened nearly half a million more since the outbreak in October of last year.

The U.S.-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (I.J.D.H.) in Haiti delivered the petition to U.N. headquarters last week and presented the U.N. mission in Haiti, known as MINUSTAH, with a copy as well.

The group says both entities are liable for the outbreak because they failed to adequately screen and treat peacekeepers arriving from countries experiencing cholera epidemics. The petition also says untreated waste from a U.N. base was dumped into a tributary of the Artibonite River - Haiti’s longest and most important waterway - and that officials then failed to adequately respond to the subsequent epidemic.

I.J.D.H. attorney Brian Concannon shared details of the petition with reporters on Tuesday.

"They are asking for $50,000 for every person who has become sick and did not die, [and] $100,000 for every victim of the U.N.’s cholera that did die," he said. "In terms of action, it is asking for effective medical treatment for people who do get cholera, but more importantly building the infrastructure that you need, especially clean water and sewage, to stop the epidemic. And third, the victims are asking for acknowledgement and an apology from the United Nations."

I.J.D.H. says 5,000 petitions have been filed, but that it expects many more will be filed during the next six months.

'A confluence of circumstances'

Cholera had not been documented in Haiti for decades. It appeared several months after the January 2010 earthquake that left thousands of people homeless and living in makeshift camps. Newly arrived Nepalese peacekeepers were suspected of bringing the disease into the country because cholera is endemic in Nepal.

In December, U.N. officials said MINUSTAH and the Haitian government had conducted tests of water samples from the Nepalese base, and the waters adjacent to it, which all proved negative.

In January, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon commissioned a panel of independent experts to investigate the matter. Their report, issued in May, found that the cholera bacteria was "introduced into Haiti as a result of human activity." But the report also noted that this particular bacterial variant was not native to Haiti and "is very similar to, but not identical, to the South Asian strain" of cholera.

The panel concluded that the outbreak was caused by "a confluence of circumstances" and that it was not "the fault of, or deliberate action of, a group or individual."

But petitioners say the opposite, arguing the outbreak is attributable to the "gross negligence, recklessness and deliberate indifference for the health and lives of Haiti’s citizens" by the U.N. and MINUSTAH.

U.N. Spokesman Martin Nesirky confirmed receipt of the petition but would not comment on it, only stating that the U.N.’s position is that of the experts’ report - a convergence of circumstances caused the outbreak.

"Our focus has to be on seeking to stop the spread and helping to treat those who have been hit with the cholera," said Nesirky.

I.J.D.H. representatives say they hope to meet with U.N. officials to discuss the petition. Lawyers for the group say they will pursue the matter in court in Haiti or New York if they cannot reach a settlement with the U.N.

They say immunity would not be upheld for the international organization in the case of introducing a disease into a country.

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