Haitians sue UN over cholera epidemic

NEW YORK (AP) — Nearly 1,500 Haitians filed a lawsuit Tuesday seeking compensation from the United Nations for victims of a cholera outbreak that health officials say has killed more than 8,000 people and sickened over 600,000 in the impoverished Caribbean nation.

Scientific studies have shown that cholera was likely introduced in Haiti by U.N. peacekeepers from Nepal, where the disease is endemic.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon rejected a previous claim for compensation for cholera victims, citing diplomatic immunity, but announced a $2.27 billion initiative to help eradicate cholera in Haiti in December 2012.

The lawsuit filed Tuesday in Brooklyn federal court seeks compensations for deaths and illnesses and funding for clean water in Haiti, which was devastated by a 2010 earthquake.

The suit includes documents which the plaintiffs say clearly show that the U.N. waived its immunity. It asks the court to declare that the U.N. has no immunity.

The documents include the U.N.'s 2004 agreement on the status of U.N. forces in Haiti which is quoted as saying that third-party claims for personal injury, illness or death "arising from or directly attributed to" the agreement "shall be settled by the United Nations ... and the United Nations shall pay compensation..."

The suit also cites a document stating that the U.N. General Assembly assumes "liability for damage caused by members of its forces in the performance of their duties." It says this document was adopted several times by the 193-member world body, and by the U.N. Security Council, as the official policy of the organization.

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric refused to comment on the lawsuit or the issue of immunity saying: "We're not going to comment on any ongoing litigation concerning Haiti. The legal issues are the legal issues, and in parallel we continue to work with the government of Haiti on the issue of cholera eradication."

Human rights groups filed a similar lawsuit in Manhattan federal court in October blaming the United Nations for the cholera outbreak and seeking compensation for victims. It sought class-action status to pursue relief for all victims of the disease, which it said the U.N. spread by contaminating Haiti's principal river with cholera-infected human waste beginning in October 2010.

U.S. State Department spokesman Jen Psaki said Friday that the U.S. Department of Justice filed a statement to the Manhattan court saying the U.N., its peacekeeping force, the secretary-general and the U.N. peacekeeping chief "are immune from suit ... in this case."

Lawyers for the plaintiffs said the waiver of immunity by the U.N. was missed by the U.S. government.

"With all respect to the U.S. government, anyone who thinks U.N. immunity is settled law in a case like this is sorely mistaken," said Tim Howard, one of the lead attorneys for the plaintiffs. "Under both the U.N. convention and U.S. statutes, immunity expressly waived cannot be unwaived. And the United Nations clearly and expressly waived its immunity from liability long before it caused this disaster."

Stanley Alpert, another attorney, said the U.N. would likely not "cry immunity" if a similar incident happened in New York City or Paris.

"The lack of regard for the value of Haitian lives is distressing and indefensible," he said.