Cholera Fallout: Can Haitians Sue the U.N. for the Epidemic?

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Ramon Espinosa / AP

A woman holds her sick child as he receives treatment for cholera at a Doctors Without Borders, MSF, cholera clinic in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Oct. 19, 2011.

Cholera hit Laurent Jacnel on a Sunday night last June. He was at home, in a Port-au-Prince tent camp for Haitians displaced by the February 2010 catastrophic earthquake, with abdominal pain so severe he refused the dinner his wife cooked and went straight to bed. By 6 a.m. the next morning he was being rushed to the hospital with acute vomiting and diarrhea. Jacnel, 23, a mason, recovered after eight days of treatment, but he says, "I haven't felt normal since. I became weak. There were heavy jobs I could do before, but now I'm not able to." His wife, a street merchant, struggles to bring in enough money to feed them and their young son.

So last week Jacnel trekked to a downtown legal office with a copy of his government ID in hand. He'd heard about a group of lawyers called the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI), who along with the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti are suing the United Nations for allegedly introducing cholera into Haiti in late 2010 — and are seeking $50,000 for each victim, double that for families of those who died from the illness. The suit represents one of the largest claims for damages ever brought against the U.N., leading victims like Jacnel to the door of BAI lawyers like Mario Joseph, one of the lead attorneys on the case, in droves. "We submitted 5,000 [claims] to the U.N." last month, says Joseph, "but we have close to 15,000 [total] by now."

The U.N. has acknowledged the suit but says it will not comment. Apart from damages, the petition also requests that the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Haiti, known as MINUSTAH, publicly accept responsibility for bringing in the cholera bacteria via a unit of Nepalese soldiers. To date the disease has killed more than 6,900 Haitians and infected more than half a million.

The question of who is responsible for Haiti's cholera epidemic — the first that the Caribbean nation, the western hemisphere's poorest, has seen in a century — has raised tempers since the first case was detected in October 2010. Rumor spread quickly afterward that the unsanitary conditions at the Nepalese U.N. peacekeepers's base, located northeast of Port-au-Prince, was at fault. Scientific studies later seemed to confirm those suspicions. The U.N. deflected blame to a local contractor, Sanco Enterprises, responsible for waste disposal at the base; but Sanco denies culpability, insisting it was just following MINUSTAH guidelines. Even an independent report commissioned by the U.N.'s Secretary General noted "haphazard" shower and latrine piping, potential overflow from an open septic pit and numerous other opportunities for contamination of the nearby water system. But it refused to cite blame for the cholera outbreak. "That's the real scandal to me," Joseph says, "that the U.N. isn't assuming responsibility."

Just getting the U.N. to respond to victims' claims will be difficult. Under the agreement signed by Haiti and the U.N. at the start of MINUSTAH's mandate in 2004 (in the wake of deadly political violence that led to the ouster of then President Jean Bertrand-Aristide), U.N. military personnel enjoy immunity from Haitian criminal charges. A Standing Claims Commission is supposed to be the mechanism for hearing civil cases like the cholera claims — but in the seven years since MINUSTAH arrived in Haiti, that three-person commission has, inexplicably, never been established.

That's why, a few blocks from the BAI's offices, Haitian lawyer Patrice Florvilus is taking a different tack. Florvilus and two other attorneys, along with civic activist groups, have formed the Community Mobilization for Reparations of Cholera Victims, which is preparing to sue MINUSTAH not via the U.N. but in the Haitian courts. The Haitian judicial system "has a duty to press the U.N. on this issue," says Florvilus. "If the [Haitian] state does not want to cooperate, we will say that [it] is complicit with MINUSTAH." The next step, then, would be to sue the Haitian government, which Florvilus complains has been far too silent on the cholera issue. BAI's Joseph agrees, saying that his group too had considered legal action against the government. "The state invited these international organizations," he says. The government did not respond to TIME's request for comment.

What all the victim advocacy groups agree on, however, is that the U.N. and the Haitian government at the very least must act on recommendations in the U.N.-commissioned report. Among them: that they invest more heavily in proper infrastructure for potable water and sanitation throughout Haiti, that they step up programs to supply oral rehydration serum to combat cholera, and promote better hygiene, water delivery and waste collection in densely populated areas. "The U.N. has a moral responsibility," says Joseph, acknowledging that the Haitian government doesn't have the resources to accomplish the reforms alone. "I think the construction of [potable water] infrastructure is the minimum."

But the reality is that the U.N. "cluster system" in Haiti, responsible for coordinating projects in water, sanitation and other sectors, will soon be scaling down. And with international funding for cholera programs now actually declining and many NGOs leaving Haiti altogether, it's unclear whether the need that groups like the BAI cite will ever be met. At the same time, the sense of urgency may be waning as well. Current Haitian cholera mortality rates are low, at about 1.3%. And while there was a spike in new cases this past October, the start of the dry season in Haiti has brought a decline in the infection rate.

Still, the numbers are expected to jump again once the rains return next year. "Cholera is going to be here," says Emmanuelle Schneider, spokesperson for the U.N.'s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Haiti. "It's going to be here as an epidemic for the next two years, and then it will probably go into an endemic phase." But unlike the earthquake, which killed more than 200,000 people, it's almost certain that someone was responsible for the cholera outbreak — and many Haitians believe someone should be held accountable for heaping a debilitating public health crisis on top of one of history's worst natural catastrophes.