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U.N. Is Sued in U.S. Court for Cholera Epidemic in Haiti

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On October 9, 2013, a class action lawsuit was filed in the federal court in the Southern District of New York against the United Nations (U.N.) by the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) and the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti  and on behalf of Haitians and Haitian Americans whose family members or themselves suffered from the cholera epidemic introduced to Haiti by a U.N. peacekeeping mission in 2010. Earlier this year, the U.N. declared that it would note compensate the victims or their families.

Since our blog series “A Call for U.N. Accountability for Cholera in Post-Earthquake Haiti” back in 2012, the number of Haitians killed by the epidemic grew from nearly 7,000 to more than 8,300 and the number of infected grew from over 522,000 individuals to over 650,000. Moreover, while the epidemic has subsided, it continues to kill approximately 1,000 Haitians a year. (see Rights Advocates Suing U.N. Over the Spread of Cholera in Haiti).

Our blog series provides a comprehensive look at the issue and the legal challenges facing those seeking to hold the U.N. at least partially accountable for the unfortunate cholera spread in the Haitian population that could have been easily prevent. Part I introduces our readers to the issue and the mounting evidence against the U.N. suggesting that the international body negligently, if unintentionally, transported cholera to Haiti through infected Nepalese peacekeeping personnel. Part II explores the immunity provisions that could pose a major challenge to Haiti’s cholera victims from obtaining effective judicial relief from the U.N. Part III evaluates the standards used by the U.N. standards for preventing and timely responding to the international spread of disease that ostensibly led to Haiti’s first outbreak of cholera in a century. Part IV draws attention to the Congressional briefing held in January 2012, where two proposals for curbing the epidemic were presented: a large-scale vaccination campaign and a collaboration among the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO), UNICEF and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) that aims to comprehensively improve water and sanitation facilities in Haiti by 2015.   Finally, we reported on the U.S. Congressional Briefing of April 18, 2012, co-sponsored by the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law and the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CESCR), that examined U.S. and international efforts to address the cholera epidemic in Haiti. 

While advocates have long been exploring ways through which the U.N. could be held legally responsible for the inadvertent spread of cholera in Haiti, the recently-filed case is currently being considered “the strongest action” taken yet by advocates. In 2011, the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti filed a petition in U.N. headquarters in New York, but the U.N. rejected the petition claiming diplomatic immunity under Section 29 of the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities. Thus, it remains to be seen what role these legal obstacles will play in the new case filed in the New York court.

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The views reflected in this expert column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent those of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law or Georgetown University. This blog is solely informational in nature, and not intended as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed and retained attorney in your state or country.

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