Human rights lawyers representing Haitian victims of a cholera epidemic filed suit in New York on Wednesday against the United Nations, accusing it of having introduced the disease to Haiti, where it has killed more than 8,300 people and sickened more than 700,000 since October 2010.
The decision to file the class action lawsuit followed the U.N. decision earlier this year not to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation claimed by cholera victims in impoverished Haiti.
The plaintiffs are five Haitians and Haitian-Americans whose family members died of the disease or who were infected but survived. They have requested that the court certify the case as a class action, which would allow the plaintiffs to represent hundreds of thousands of Haitians and Haitian-Americans who suffered injuries or died from cholera.
The Boston-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), which is bringing the case on behalf of the plaintiffs, released a press statement Wednesday that said it has extensive evidence "demonstrating that 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 the U.N. "consciously disregarded that risk, triggering an explosive epidemic."
"The plaintiffs seek damages for personal injury, wrongful death, emotional distress, loss of use of property and natural resources, and breach of contract," the statement read.
Lawyers said that Haiti had no reported cases of cholera prior to the 2010 breakout.
The complaint alleges that the U.N. failed to take precautionary steps to prevent the outbreak or remedial steps to contain it: "Defendants have long known that Haiti’s weak water and sanitation infrastructure created a heightened vulnerability to waterborne disease but failed to exercise due care to prevent the devastating outbreak of such disease."
Timeline: Haiti, the UN and cholera
In October 2010, the U.N. deployed a peacekeeping force to Haiti from Nepal, a country that at the time was experiencing a surge in cholera infections. Lawyers said one or more of the soldiers deployed from Nepal carried cholera to Haiti.
The soldiers were stationed on a base near the Meille Tributary, a local river that flows into the Artibonite River, Haiti’s longest river and primary water source.
Poor pipe connections that leaked raw sewage, along with improper disposal of water contaminated with human waste, are believed to have contributed to the spread of the cholera bacteria. According to the complaint, soldiers routinely disposed of human waste in unprotected, open-air pits that would overflow in heavy rain and expose the local community to raw sewage. The waste would then seep into the local river and eventually end up contaminating the country's main river source, resulting in massive outbreaks of cholera.
A U.N.-appointed panel of experts and other independent scientific experts determined that the particular strain that is endemic in Nepal is also the source of the Haitian epidemic, although a report released by the U.N. in 2011 could not conclusively determine how the cholera was introduced to Haiti.
But the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found evidence that strongly suggested U.N. peacekeepers from Nepal were the source.
The complaint accused the U.N. of having "willfully delayed an investigation into the outbreak, and obscured discovery of its source." As a result, "cholera continues to present an ongoing grave threat," the complaint said.
Brian Concannon, director of the IJDH, told Al Jazeera that the suit was filed in New York because the U.N. is headquartered there, giving the court jurisdiction. "There is also a strong Haitian community in New York that supports the case," he said.
There were no details about the amount of compensation that victims were seeking.
Concannon said the U.N. has an explicit agreement with the government of Haiti with respect to sanitary services. The complaint notes that the agreement stipulates the "fullest cooperation in matters concerning health, particularly with respect to control of communicable diseases, in accordance with international conventions."
Cholera is an infection causing severe diarrhea that can lead to dehydration and death. It occurs in places with poor sanitation.
The epidemic has resulted in additional cases in the United States, the Dominican Republic and Cuba.
In November 2011, the 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.
Martin Nesirky, spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, said in February of this year that the world body advised the representatives of the cholera victims that "the claims are not receivable pursuant to Section 29 of the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities."
Section 29 states that the U.N. shall provide for "appropriate modes of settlement” of claims against it, meaning that it must provide justice through internal mechanisms. Concannon said that by rejecting the cholera claims, the U.N. was refusing to uphold its commitment to provide alternative justice.
The IJDH said at the time that it was disappointed by the U.N. decision and would pursue the case in court.
Ban launched a $2.2 billion initiative in December 2012 to stamp out cholera in Haiti over the next decade.
It was not immediately clear how the issue of diplomatic immunity for the United Nations would affect the lawsuit being filed in the New York court. Concannon told Al Jazeera that in prior cases, international courts have found that the U.N. does not have absolute immunity. "The U.N.'s immunity is conditioned on the U.N. fulfilling its side of the bargain, which is to provide victims with alternate mechanisms for justice, which it has refused," he said. "Courts are increasingly recognizing that if an international organization refuses to uphold its end of the bargain, it should not be allowed to invoke immunity in court."
A United Nations official spoke out Tuesday for compensation for the thousands of Haitians who have died in the cholera outbreak.
"I have used my voice both inside the United Nations and outside to call for the right — for an investigation by the United Nations, by the country concerned, and I still stand by the call that victims of — of those who suffered as a result of that cholera be provided with compensation," Navi Pillay, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said at an awards ceremony for human rights activists in Geneva.
Pillay's remarks, streamed live on the Internet, were a rare call by a U.N. official to provide compensation for victims. She did not specify where the compensation should come from.
Pillay said she had raised the compensation issue almost a year ago when she was asked a question at a lecture at Oxford University.
Asked about Pillay's comments, U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq said it is not the "United Nations' practice to discuss in public claims filed against the organization."
Nicole Phillips, lawyer for the IJDH, said that Pillay's "public support for the cholera victims' claims could be a game changer in their claims against the U.N."
Al Jazeera and wire services. Amel Ahmed contributed to this report.