5,000 Haitian cholera victims petition U.N. seeking compensation, adequate response to end epidemic

(CNS/Paul Jeffrey)

Thousands of Haitians stricken with cholera during the last 13 months are seeking compensation and an improved response to ending the epidemic from the United Nations, according to a petition filed with the world agency.

The petition filed by lawyers with Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti in conjunction with the Office of International Lawyers on behalf of more than 5,000 Haitians charges that cholera was introduced into the country by Nepalese troops serving with the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti — MINUSTAH — and that the world body has done little in response to the spread of the disease.

The petitioners also want the U.N. to boost medical treatment for current and future victims and build a clean water and sanitation infrastructure. They also are demanding an apology from U.N. officials.

The Haitian Ministry of Health and Population reported as of Oct. 26 that the disease has caused 6,712 deaths and infected more than 485,000  people, making it the largest cholera epidemic in the world.

Brian Concannon Jr., an attorney and director of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, said the suit is aimed at the U.N. in order to reach an agreement that more needs to be done to overcome the spread of the water-borne disease that causes diarrhea and rapid dehydration.

“We want the United Nations to live up to its responsibilities. It’s a great opportunityy for them to act in support of their ideals,” Concannon told Catholic News Service after announcing the lawsuit at a press conference in New York.

The U.N. is being targeted because tests on the cholera strain showed it to be virtually identical to the type that infected 1,400 people in Nepal in summer 2010. No deaths were reported in the southern Asia nation.

Soon thereafter, Nepalese troops were sent to Haiti to serve with MINUSTAH. But under U.N. guidelines they were not tested for the disease because none of them exhibited any symptoms.

The troops set up camp on a tributary of the Artibonite River in central Haiti and soon the outbreak began, the lawsuit claims. A U.N. team investigated and concluded that leaks from a pit containing human waste from the camp may have caused the strain to enter the river  system, reaching nearby communities where the first cholera cases were reported. Until the outbreak, Haiti had no reported cholera cases in 50 years.

Concannon said that without adequate treatment facilities nearby, people fled to other parts of Haiti, rapidly spreading the disease.

“The response the U.N. has is what I would call a charity approach, as if they’re trying to raise a little money in response,” he said. “What this calls for is a justice approach … not what the U.N. has extra to provide but what the Haitian people deserve.”

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