A lawsuit has been filed on behalf of more than 5,000 Haitians against the United Nations over the cholera outbreak that has further devastated Haiti in the aftermath of the January 2010 earthquake. Some 450,000 Haitians have been sickened, and more than 6,000 have died, since the cholera outbreak erupted in October 2010, just over a year ago. It is widely believed the cholera was brought to Haiti by a battalion of Nepalese troops with the U.N. peacekeeping force. In a complaint to the United Nations, the attorneys for the Haitian victims also accuse the organization of reckless failure in containing the outbreak, arguing it is “directly attributable to the negligence, gross negligence, recklessness and deliberate indifference” for the health and lives of Haitians. “Time after time, the response has been to deny the allegations. We’re hoping that this is the case that’s too big to fail, that the evidence against the United Nations is so overwhelming here that the U.N. will have no choice but to finally take responsibility for its malfeasance,” says attorney Brian Concannon of the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti. “What we are asking for, what our clients are asking for, is the U.N. and the international community to step up and to give Haiti the sanitation infrastructure it needs to stop the epidemic.” [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: We turn to another Democracy Now! exclusive. A lawsuit has been filed on behalf of more than 5,000 Haitians against the United Nations over the cholera outbreak that has further devastated Haiti in the aftermath of the January 2010 earthquake. Some 450,000 Haitians have been sickened, more than 6,000 have died, since October 2010, when the cholera outbreak erupted just over a year ago. It’s widely believed the cholera was brought to Haiti by a battalion of Nepalese troops with the U.N. peacekeeping force.
In a complaint to the U.N., the attorneys for the Haitian victims also accuse the U.N. of reckless failure in containing the outbreak, writing, quote, “The cholera outbreak is directly attributable to the negligence, gross negligence, recklessness and deliberate indifference for the health and lives of Haiti’s citizens by the United Nations.” With more than 5 percent of the population sickened during the outbreak, it’s believed Haiti now has the highest rate of cholera in the world.
Brian Concanon is one of the attorneys who filed the suit on behalf of Haitian cholera victims. He’s director of the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti. In this exclusive, Brian Concanon joins us now to talk about the case.
You’re filing today?
BRIAN CONCANNON: We actually filed it on Thursday, but today we’re officially announcing it. We’re having a press conference at the U.N. in New York and in Haiti today.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re blaming the United Nations.
BRIAN CONCANNON: Actually, the United Nations mostly blamed itself. The U.N. put out a report in May that demonstrated the U.N. was at fault for the introduction and the spread of cholera, although the report has a conclusion that’s disjointed from the facts that are in that, and the U.N. is failing to officially acknowledge responsibility, nor is it responding as if—responding adequately to slow down and—slow down the epidemic and treat the victims.
AMY GOODMAN: What has been the response to the lawsuit?
BRIAN CONCANNON: So far, there’s not been a response, which is consistent with the U.N.'s practice. Democracy Now! viewers know that the U.N. has had an impunity problem almost since it's been in Haiti. MINUSTAH got to Haiti in 2004. Early in its mission, there were attacks against—there were arrests of political dissidents. There were attacks in poor neighborhoods that killed dozens of people at a time. Throughout its tenure, the U.N. has had a problem of sexual abuse. And time after time, the response has been to deny the allegations. We’re hoping that this is the case that’s too big to fail, that the evidence against the United Nations is so overwhelming here that the U.N. will have no choice but to finally take responsibility for its malfeasance.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the origins of the outbreak.
BRIAN CONCANNON: Sure. The outbreak first hit about 150 meters below a U.N. military base in an area called Mirebalais in central Haiti. And the people who have done the genetic testing find that the strain of cholera that hit that area is identical to a strain that was in Nepal, and Nepal had a cholera outbreak in the summer of 2010. Towards the end of that outbreak, Nepalese troops were transferred to Haiti. They were not adequately tested for cholera. And they were transferred to this Mirebalais base, where the sewage from the base was disposed of by dumping it in a pit. There were leaky pipes, and there were other problems that led the U.N. to conclude that there was a good chance that the sewage from that camp went right into the river called the Meye River, which is a tributary of Artibonite, which is Haiti’s Mississippi River. It’s the biggest river. It’s used for drinking water. It’s used for irrigation. And it’s used for—it’s used by a large percentage of Haiti’s population.
Once the cholera got into that river, it first got people downriver, but then, when the people downriver started getting sick and there wasn’t any effective public health response, people in the whole area panicked, and they ran to other parts of Haiti, and they brought with them the cholera disease. And so, it rapidly—rapidly spread to a large portion of Haiti’s territory. And right now there are areas that are safer, but in almost every—every department of Haiti has had cholera cases. And as you mentioned, it’s now the worst cholera epidemic in the world.
AMY GOODMAN: We were struck after the earthquake—not the cholera epidemic, but the earthquake—the level of support of Cuban doctors in dealing with the people of Haiti. What about their role, Cuban doctors, in dealing with the cholera epidemic?
BRIAN CONCANNON: Yeah, our clients and other reports have been saying that the Cuban doctors have been taking the lead in—especially because the cholera has hit places in remote areas where, in many of those remote areas, the only doctors who go there are Cuban doctors. So they’ve done a great job. The problem is, is that this is not an epidemic you can stop with doctors. It’s an epidemic you can stop by providing clean water and sanitation. And what we are asking for, what our clients are asking for, is the U.N. and the international community to step up and to give Haiti the sanitation infrastructure it needs to stop the epidemic.
AMY GOODMAN: How exactly can the U.N. deal right now? And has the U.N. been sued before?
BRIAN CONCANNON: There’s been several efforts to sue the—to find accountability for the U.N. in Haiti. The problem is, there’s an agreement called the Status of Forces Agreement that Haiti signed with the U.N. that provides basically diplomatic immunity to U.N. personnel and to the mission as a whole. That Status of Forces Agreement provides an alternative dispute mechanism called the Standing Claims Commission. The U.N. has never established the Standing Claims Commission. And so, right now there’s no real forum. And what our lawsuit is doing is challenging the U.N. to come up with a fair, impartial forum for deciding this dispute. If they don’t, that gives national courts jurisdictions, because national courts have ruled that immunity cannot mean impunity, that if organizations like the U.N. do not provide adequate alternative justice mechanisms, then national courts will then be able to take these cases.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to end with Jimmy Carter, the former U.S. president, in Haiti this month with Habitat for Humanity, trying to help rebuild thousands of destroyed homes, speaking Monday about the slow delivery of funding to reconstruct Haiti.
JIMMY CARTER: I’ve only been here one day, and I’ve seen—and we’ve driven through Port-au-Prince and through part of the large city. I don’t see any evidence of building homes for poor families. I see a lot of reconstruction of very large houses, you know, where rich people live. Well, my understanding is that the pledges of funding have been quite large, but the actual delivery of the money and the spending of money for homes has been very slow. And I’ll be sharing this opinion with the United States officials and with United Nations officials when I return to the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: That was former president Jimmy Carter talking about the slow funding for housing after the earthquake. I mean, really, President Clinton is the point person on helping with getting money into Haiti. How much does the U.N., MINUSTAH—that’s the U.N. mission in Haiti—get?
BRIAN CONCANNON: Sure. There’s been slow funding for housing. There’s been slow funding for cholera treatment. There has not been slow funding for peacekeeping. One-tenth of all U.N. peacekeepers are in Haiti. Their budget for this year is $800 million. And that’s for a country that has not had a war in my lifetime, but does have a cholera epidemic.
AMY GOODMAN: Eight hundred million.
BRIAN CONCANNON: Yes, about $2.5 million every day, and that’s for peacekeepers. And most Haitians do not see the justification on the ground for a peacekeeping mission.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much, Brian Concannon, for joining us, director of the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti, human rights lawyer, holding a news conference today in New York—also, there will be one held in Haiti—announcing the lawsuit against the United Nations for the cholera epidemic in Haiti.