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Petitioners Consider Legal Action if U.N. Fails to Respond to Cholera Crisis in Haiti

UNITED NATIONS, May 8 2013 (IPS) - The United Nations might soon find itself entangled in a legal battle for its failure to effectively deal with the cholera epidemic in Haiti, which has left more than 8,000 people dead since 2010.

At a press conference Wednesday, attorneys representing 5,000 cholera victims in Haiti announced they would drag the U.N. to court if it refuses to budge from its earlier stand of denying compensation to the victims.

An official notice in the form of a letter addressed to the  Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs Patricia O’Brien seeks an “appropriate response” from the U.N. within 60 days, failing which the lawyers will “file a suit in a national court on behalf of Petitioners and other victims of cholera in Haiti.”

After various reports suggested that poor waste disposal management by the Nepali contingent of U.N. peacekeepers was the cause of the epidemic, organisations, such as the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), have been vociferously demanding compensation from the U.N. for the cholera victims in Haiti.

Activists and organisations representing the victims have also been clamouring for an apology from the U.N. along with adequate funding to prevent further spread of cholera.

Their demands have fallen on deaf ears and their letters have failed to elicit any concrete response from the U.N. so far, said Ira J. Kurzban, an attorney at Kurzban Kurzban Weinger Tetzeil and Pratt, P.A. in Florida, who is involved in this case.

“There is always a room for compromise, but first the U.N. has to respond,” Kurzban told IPS. “The first response was no response, and the second response was a ridiculous response of two lines saying that we are not accepting your claims because this is a public matter.”

Taking on a world body could be a challenge for any organization, but Kruzban said that a win is inevitable in such a scenario. “It’s a clear case of liability,” he told IPS.  “The U.N. has some immunity, but it doesn’t have impunity.”

Brian Concannon Jr., director at the IJDH said that the failure on the part of the U.N. to take responsibility for its actions shows that there is a large gap between the principles and practices of the U.N.

The attorneys said that this is the last chance for the U.N. to respond before they take any legal action against the world body. As of now “a just response” is what the lawyers seek from the U.N.

While efforts are underway to break the logjam over this issue, the Haitian diaspora in the U.S. has been helping people back in Haiti in several ways.

“We sometimes send bleach via boats or through various NGOs to Haiti so that the water could be cleaned,” Jean Ford Figaro, a Haitian advocate for a stronger U.N. public health response told IPS. But large-scale efforts are needed to control the disease, he added.

Asked what Haitians living in Haiti feel about the U.N., Figaro said that when it comes to the U.N. there is a growing trust deficit among the Haitians after the cholera epidemic.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “cholera is an extremely virulent disease. It affects both children and adults and can kill within hours.”  The epidemic has infected more than 654,000 Haitians since October 2010.

With the onset of the rainy season, proper precautionary measures should be in place to prevent further deaths due to cholera, suggest experts.

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