On August 24, Tropical Storm Isaac pummelled Haiti, resulting in floods, mudslides and storm surges, downed trees and power lines. The storm threatened the lives of millions, particularly the more than 400,000 homeless Haitians, still living in flimsy tents, exposed to the elements like sitting ducks, two and half years after the January 2010 earthquake. Painful images of tent-dwellers bracing against fierce winds, with a background of flying tents containing all of their worldly possessions, were beamed on CNN between news of another US shooting incident and the joys of Australian river rafting. Adding to the crisis was the fear of an ensuing surge of the cholera epidemic introduced into Haiti by the UN forces. The initial death toll from Isaac is reportedly at 24, but this number could spike due to the potential increase in cholera cases.
On 21 October, 2010, ten months after the greatest natural disaster of the modern age, cholera exploded in the Artibonite region along Haiti's central river system, quickly spreading to other areas. According to Duke University's Prof Deborah Jenson, who has done extensive research on Haiti, while cholera raged in the United States and much of the Caribbean, it always failed to take root in Haiti. Haiti went from never having had a cholera outbreak in recorded history to now having, based on the Pan-American Health Organisation (PAHO), "one of the largest cholera epidemics in modern history".
Numerous independent DNA tests and epidemiological studies, including those of the UN itself, have established that Nepalese troops to the UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) brought the vibrio cholerae bacteria to Haiti. Geneticists have precisely matched the epidemic strain in Haiti to a particularly virulent, deadly cholera strain found in Nepal in the summer of 2010, just before the troops were deployed.
Although Nepal has endemic cholera, the UN did not test or treat the Nepalese peacekeepers for cholera prior to their deployment. In Haiti, they lived on a base with a haphazard and inadequate sewage system, and recklessly dumped all waste into an unfenced pit. It was easily foreseeable that human faeces containing cholera bacteria could contaminate a tributary, which runs just metres from the base into the Artibonite River, travelling downstream to infect the Haitian families who drink, bathe, play and wash laundry in the river.
Three of the brave souls who have taken on the UN Leviathan are attorneys Marguerite Laurent of the Haitian Lawyers Leadership Network (HLLN), Mario Joseph of the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI), and Brian Concannon of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH).
On November 3, 2011, BAI and IJDH filed a lawsuit on behalf of 5,000 cholera victims. The case demands that the UN provide the only long-term solution, which is the comprehensive clean water and sanitation infrastructure necessary to control the epidemic. Cholera is generally easily treatable with oral rehydration solutions. But for those who lack access to clean water and medical care, it can kill in a matter of hours. Medical treatment, vaccinations and chlorine tablets are saving some lives for now, but cholera immunity lasts only a few years, while the cholera bacteria will remain in Haiti indefinitely. The water and sanitation infrastructure will not only eradicate cholera, it will reduce all water-borne diseases in Haiti, which kill thousands every year.
Incredibly, the UN initially denied responsibility on the premise that a "confluence of factors", including Haiti's weak sanitation and health infrastructure, were the real reasons for the outbreak. This preposterous, and legally invalid defence is akin to starting a fire in a dry field, and blaming the wind for its spread. Before the outbreak, Haiti was widely known to be one of the most water-insecure countries in the world, and after the devastating earthquake of January 2010, experts warned that outbreaks of water-borne diseases, especially cholera, would have disastrous effects.
Haiti's fragile conditions created a heightened responsibility for the UN to exercise care in its operations. Yet the UN failed to take simple measures that would have prevented the outbreak, like testing of its soldiers known to come from a cholera-endemic region, proper management and disposal of waste and immediate corrective action. By any legal code, the UN is legally responsible because its carelessness directly caused foreseeable harm to victims.
The epidemic has killed more than 7,585 Haitians and infected over 594,198 to date, with a minimum of 200 new cases per day. To fathom the alarming rate of these statistics in Haiti's ten million population, let us compare what they would represent to the US, with its 314 million population. It would equate to 238,169 deaths out of 18,657,817.2 victims to date, and a minimum of 6,280 new cases per day. Would this scourge be allowed to continue for two whole years in the US without eradication measures being undertaken with the utmost urgency?
The victims of cholera filed complaints directly with the UN's internal claims unit. MINUSTAH's operations in Haiti are governed by a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which affords the UN and MINUSTAH broad immunities from civil or criminal prosecution in Haitian courts. To balance this immunity, the SOFA requires the establishment of an independent Standing Claims Commission to hear claims and compensate victims who have been injured in the course of UN operations. Despite this requirement, no commission has been established during the eight years MINUSTAH has operated in Haiti. In fact, there has never been a Standing Claims Commission established in 67 years of UN peacekeeping, even though these commissions are a standard feature of most SOFAs.
• Myrtha Désulmé is president of
the Haiti-Jamaica Society and the
Caribbean representative of the
Haitian Diaspora Federation.