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U.N. sued in U.S. court over Haiti's cholera epidemic

A resident holds packets of water to sell in downtown Port-au-Prince November 23, 2010. REUTERS/ Eduardo Munoz
A resident holds packets of water to sell in downtown Port-au-Prince November 23, 2010. REUTERS/ Eduardo Munoz

By Louis Charbonneau

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Human rights lawyers filed a class-action lawsuit against the United Nations on Wednesday to seek compensation for Haitian victims of a cholera epidemic they blame on U.N. peacekeepers.

The decision to file the suit in New York comes after the United Nations said earlier this year that it would not pay hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation claimed by cholera victims in impoverished Haiti.

The cholera epidemic there has killed more than 8,300 people and sickened more than 650,000 since October 2010.

"Haiti today has the worst cholera epidemic in the world," said Miami attorney Ira Kurzban, who announced the lawsuit at a joint news conference with the human rights groups Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) and the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH).

"Before these events, Haiti did not know of cholera for 100 years. Cholera was brought to Haiti by U.N. troops," Kurzban said.

The IJDH said the plaintiffs are asking the court to certify the case as a class action, which would allow the victims to represent and obtain relief for the hundreds of thousands Haitians and Haitian-Americans affected by the epidemic.

The lawyers filed the suit in the U.S. District Court in New York's Southern District, seeking $2.2 billion for the Haitian government to eradicate cholera along with unspecified damages for as many as 679,000 victims for personal injury, wrongful death, emotional distress, and loss of use of property and natural resources.

The lawsuit filed on behalf of Haitians and Haitian-Americans maintains that the cholera was introduced by U.N. troops brought to Haiti from Nepal, "a country in which cholera is endemic and where a surge in infections had just been reported."

The troops were stationed near a tributary of the Artibonite River and discharged raw sewage that carried a strain of cholera into Haiti, sparking the epidemic, the lawsuit said.

"The U.N. knew or should have known that its reckless sanitation and waste disposal practices posed a high risk of harm to the population, and that it consciously disregarded that risk, triggering an explosive epidemic," the civil rights groups said in a joint press release.

Asked to comment on the suit, U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq said: "We don't discuss claims brought against the U.N."

The United Nations was working on the ground in Haiti to provide assistance to those affected, he added. It was committed to do all it can do "to help the people of Haiti overcome the cholera epidemic," Haq said.

DIPLOMATIC IMMUNITY

U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay said in Geneva on Tuesday that Haiti's cholera victims should be compensated, though she did not say who should compensate them.

"I still stand by the call ... of those who suffered as a result of that cholera be provided with compensation," she said.

An independent panel, appointed by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to study the epidemic, issued a 2011 report that did not determine conclusively how the cholera was introduced to Haiti.

However, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said evidence strongly suggested U.N. peacekeepers from Nepal were the source.

Cholera is an infection that causes severe diarrhea and can lead to dehydration and death. It occurs in places with poor sanitation.

In November 2011, the Boston-based IJDH filed a petition at U.N. headquarters in New York seeking a minimum of $100,000 for the families or next-of-kin of each person killed by cholera and at least $50,000 for each victim who suffered illness or injury from cholera.

Ban launched a $2.2 billion initiative in December 2012 to stamp out cholera over the next decade in Haiti.

Ban's spokesman Martin Nesirky said in February that the world body advised representatives of the cholera victims that "the claims are not receivable pursuant to Section 29 of the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities."

The IJDH said at the time it was disappointed by the U.N. decision and would pursue the case in court.

Under Section 29 the United Nations is required to make provisions for "appropriate modes of settlement" of private law disputes to which the world body is a party, or disputes involving a U.N. official who enjoys diplomatic immunity.

It was not immediately clear how the issue of diplomatic immunity for the United Nations would impact the lawsuit.

Kurzban said the lawsuit seeks to clean up the waterways and sanitation systems in Haiti. "Cholera is treatable, easily treatable, if the country has clean water and sanitation.

"We feel the U.N. has an obligation to clean up the mess that they made."

(Reporting by Louis Charbonneau; Additional reporting by Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Mike Collett-White, David Adams and Christopher Wilson)

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