Class action filed in US will test UN’s traditional immunity after outbreak that killed 8,000 people was traced to UN base
Rashmee Roshan Lall in Port-au-Prince
Human rights lawyers have filed a lawsuit against the United Nationsseeking compensation for the families of thousands of Haitians who died ofcholera as a result of sanitation lapses at a UN camp.
The class action claim comes just days before the UN formally renews the mandate of Minustah, the French acronym of the mission in Haiti, after a troubled decade keeping the peace.
Sloppy sanitation at a Minustah base is blamed for starting the outbreak, which has claimed more than 8,000 lives and infected nearly 700,000 – one out of every 16 Haitians. UN peacekeepers from Nepal, where cholera is endemic, brought a South Asian strain of the disease to Haiti, which had remained free of it for 200 years, even when three cholera pandemics raged in the Caribbean in the 19th century.
The claim was filed at the federal district court in Manhattan by an activist group of US-based lawyers: the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), its Haitian partner Bureaux des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) and a prominent Florida civil rights law firm.
IJDH lawyer Beatrice Lindstrom said a case of this scale against the UN was unprecedented in the US and that she hoped the court would set aside the UN’s traditional immunity. Lindstrom compared the case with a ruling by the Dutch supreme court last monththat Holland should compensate the deaths of Bosnian Muslims expelled by Dutch soldiers from a UN compound during the Balkans conflict.
The UN argues it has legal immunity from such compensation claims and has formally rejected claims from Haitians affected. But this week the UN high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, made a rare case for compensation for the victims. “I still stand by the call that victims of of those who suffered as a result of that cholera be provided with compensation,” she said.
The case is the latest in a string of bad publicity for Minustah, which is preparing to scale back one of the UN’s biggest peacekeeping missions in the world to its lowest level in 10 years.
Peacekeepers have also been accused of numerous instances of rape and sexual abuse – most recently, an alleged assault by a Sri Lankan soldier last month. In March 2012, a Pakistani military tribunal convened in Haiti convicted two Pakistani peacekeepers of raping a 14-year-old boy.
Lt Gen Edson Pujol, commander of the 19-country force, denied that Minustah had been discredited by the string of scandals. “None of my men face any hostility day to day – ask anyone … We continue with our mission of support and stabilisation,” he said.
Many Haitians say they would be glad to see the UN force leave, but there is anxiety about who, or what, might fill the security gap. President Michel Martelly argues euphemistically that Haiti needs to create its own force to deal with life after Minustah. Haiti’s army was disbanded in 1995, but still exists in the constitution.
The UN and major foreign donors say Haiti’s focus must be on the national police force instead of attempting to revive the army. Currently 10,000-strong, the police force is expected to rise to 15,000 by 2016. The choices may become increasingly stark by June, when Minustah will have shrunk by 15% to a little over 5,000 military troops – its lowest level in its decade-long mission.
But Haitian defence expert Georges Michel, who helped write the country’s 1987 constitution, warns there is little real choice. “The country will explode when the foreign military leaves unless you have a Haitian army. If you didn’t need a military tool in Haiti, they would have sent us the New York police department for peacekeeping in 2004, not foreign soldiers,” he argues.
The army is the preferred option for many Haitians, who revere it as the disciplined and nationalist force that led their 1804 liberation from France, the colonial power. But its 20th-century role was less glorious and pockmarked by coups and human rights abuses.
Foreign observers say it isn’t fitting for a country that lacks a basic healthcare system or even the ability to pave its roads to spend 2 to 6 % of its GDP on an army.