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US Court Hears Pleas for Justice over UN Role in Haiti’s Cholera Epidemic

By: Makini Brice - @makinibrice - Oct 24, 2014, 7:52 am
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Beatrice Lindstrom of the Institute for Justice in Democracy in Haiti accepts questions regarding her pursuit of accountability for negligent UN officials. (@thecourier)

EspañolHaitian cholera victims finally had their day in court on Thursday: a hearing at the US District Court in the Southern District of New York on a gray, rainy New York morning. About 50 official observers and other interested parties watched, as lawyers for the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, the US Attorney’s Office, and other attorneys debated over whether the case would continue.

It centers on a cholera epidemic that seized Haiti in the aftermath of its staggering 2010 earthquake. Over the past four years, the epidemic has sickened about 700,000 and killed 8,500, in a country that had not had a cholera case in about 150 years.

A number of scientific studies have pointed to a UN peacekeepers’ camp about 35 miles from Port-au-Prince as the source of the outbreak. Further, they have stated that a sewage pipe from the facility leaked into a river used for drinking water in the community.

Beatrice Lindstrom argued on behalf of IJDH, while Jennifer Ellen Blain argued on the side of the United States, though Blain made sure to state that the United States was not a party in Georges et al. vs. United Nations et al. Both spoke for 15 minutes, while friends of the court each spoke for 10 minutes. That included Kertch Conze from the Haitian Women of Miami and the Haitian Lawyers Association; Muneer Ahmad, a Yale Law School professor and supervisor for the Yale project behind a report on the epidemic last year; and Monica Iyer, a human-rights attorney.

Conze, in particular, captured a great deal of the sentiment in the room, on the need for accountability: “They [the cholera victims] did absolutely nothing wrong to deserve this.”


Video produced by Kristin Oakley.

Much of the arguments’ content during the hearing centered on the 1946 Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations, specifically two sections. Section 2 reads that the United Nations should enjoy immunity unless it is expressly waived, while Section 29 states that the United Nations should provide provisions for settlement in certain cases.

Lindstrom argued that the United Nations does not have legal immunity in this case, because it has not provided sufficient access to redress for Haitian victims of the cholera epidemic.

Blain, on the other hand, argued that the United Nations should have legal immunity in this case, and that the convention provided a means for redress. Section 30 states that, if there’s a difference of interpretation over the convention, cases can be brought to the International Court of Justice.

However, only member states can bring cases to the ICJ — not the Haitian victims behind the case today. Blain declined to say whether the United States would pursue that option.

Blain also said that the case’s decision would not be limited, prompting a sea of litigation against the United Nations, which, she charged, needed immunity to do its job. Lindstrom denied that would be the case, saying in her earlier rebuttal that, because the facts of the case were so specific, the decision would need to be narrow.

Throughout the arguments, Judge J. Paul Oetken asked questions of each lawyer, pressing them to clarify their points, challenging their assertions, and occasionally making the audience laugh. The audience, too, seemed to play a part, occasionally murmuring in response to statements the lawyers made.

Ahmad of Yale, providing an international-law perspective, said that the United Nations had provided remedies in previous cases in the 32 other countries to which the institution had sent peacekeeping forces. Meanwhile, Monica Iyer, who spoke about the European law’s interpretation, said that French and Italian courts had previously ruled that UN agencies cannot be granted immunity.

However, Blain countered that, at the time of the cases to which Iyer referred, France and Italy had not been signatories to a convention that gave agencies similar immunities as the United Nations as a whole.

The court adjourned with the judge announcing he would make his decision later.

The United Nations has refused legal responsibility for the cholera outbreak. Lindstrom said that, by November 2012, 5,000 families had filed claims with the institution, and for 15 months, their claims went unanswered. In July 2013, the United Nations said the claims were “not receivable.”

Pressure on the international organization has not subsided, however. Two other groups have also filed lawsuits against the United Nations.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visited Haiti this summer and did say that the United Nations has a “moral responsibility” for the country. The United Nations has also called for a US$2.2 billion fund for cholera eradication, but most of it has gone unfunded. Since 2010, cholera incidences have declined by 75 percent throughout the country.

Edited by Fergus Hodgson.

Makini Brice Makini Brice

Makini Brice is a freelance journalist and graduate student at New York University, where she majors in journalism and French studies. Follow @makinibrice.