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U.N. sued for ‘bringing cholera to Haiti,’ causing outbreak that killed thousands

CNN News Wire | 10/9/2013, 2:44 p.m.
A Haitian man washes in the river where the cholera outbreak began according to a French study.

Human rights lawyers filed a class action law suit in a U.S federal court accusing the United Nations of gross negligence and misconduct on behalf of victims of a cholera outbreak in Haiti in 2010.

“The claims are that the U.N. engaged in reckless and gross negligence and misconduct bringing cholera to Haiti,” said Ira Kurzban, a lawyer and board member with the Boston-based Institute for Justice and Development in Haiti. The group is demanding financial compensation for the 8,300 Haitians who died as a result of the cholera epidemic as well as some 650,000 more survivors of the illness.

U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq expressed to CNN “it is not the United Nations’ practice to discuss in public claims filed against the Organization.”

Earlier this year, however, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon declared the United Nations could not receive claims for compensation from Haitian cholera victims, arguing that the organization had legal immunity according to an international convention.

In October 2010, a cholera epidemic exploded in Haiti, striking as the island country was still reeling from a deadly earthquake earlier that year which killed tens of thousands of people.

The cholera bacteria, which is not indigenous to Haiti, spread rapidly, ultimately killing an estimated 8,300 people. The epidemic sparked riots in several cities and towns against the force of some 8,000 U.N. peacekeepers deployed there.

Several scientific and medical investigators eventually concluded that one of the likely sources of the outbreak was sewage leaking from a U.N. base housing Nepalese peacekeepers. The base was perched above a tributary stream leading into the Artibonite River near the town of Meille.

“The way we understand disease transmission today, there is no other good explanation for how a (cholera) strain that was present only in the northeastern region of the Indian subcontinent traveled 9,000 miles to Haiti and happened to end up in a river next to a base with U.N. peacekeepers from Nepal, said Jonathan Katz, a former Associated Press reporter who was one of the first journalists to investigate the source of outbreak in 2010.

Katz, who further investigated the U.N.’s response to the outbreak in his book “The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster,” accused the United Nations of covering up its responsibility for the cholera epidemic.

“In 2010, the U.N. didn’t want anyone to talk about this,” Katz said, in a phone interview with CNN. “They were directly castigating anyone who would bring up the topic.”

In September, the prime minister of Haiti raised the issue during a speech before the U.N. General Assembly.

“The United Nations has a moral responsibility for the eruption of the epidemic,” said Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe, according to a U.N. transcript.

Lamothe argued that the current efforts made by the U.N. to eradicate cholera were far from sufficient. He called for the creation of a joint commission to further study the disease.

In a briefing to journalists on Wednesday, U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq said as a result of the Haitian epidemic, the organization was in the process of adopting steps to prevent the further spread of the disease.

“Part of our lessons learned from this has been to screen peacekeepers for cholera,” Haq said.

Health authorities continue to document thousands of cholera cases a month.

At least 182 Haitians died of cholera between April and August 2013, according to the World Health Organization.

Ivan Watson and Joe Vaccarello | CNN