What do you think of when you see the word, "cholera?" I used to think: a treatable STD, ergo a nonissue. Countries like Haiti don't have the luxury to think that way.
After the devastating earthquake in 2010, United Nations peacekeepers from Nepal (where Cholera is endemic) were stationed at a military base near the town of Meye. Because of inadequate water and sanitation facilities, cholera-infected waste was leaked into the Artibonite River. Countless Haitians use this river - the country's largest - for bathing, cooking and drinking.
In a country where no cases of cholera had been recorded in more than 150 years, the disease spread so fast that within nine months, the number of infected Haitians surpassed all recorded cholera infections in the rest of the world combined. More than 8,000 Haitians have died, and more than 600,000 have been infected. Those numbers have spiked since the country entered its wet season. Many fear they will further surge as hurricane season looms.
I spoke with Beatrice Lindstrom, staff attorney for the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti. She told me that her agency works in close collaboration with their sister organization in Haiti, the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, the leading force behind the cholera work. The organizations are in the process of filing a lawsuit against the U.N.
Lindstrom was on site when the first outbreaks occurred. "Initially, we didn't think about this as a legal problem," she said. "We thought it was a humanitarian crisis."
While they mobilized training on sanitation, rumors began circulating that the outbreak had started in the Meye U.N. base. Lindstrom and many others expected the U.N. to commit to an investigation. Instead, they released statements to the media saying it was "unfair" that they were being blamed.
Since then, microbiological studies demonstrate that the strain of cholera in Haiti's waters matches the strain of cholera prevalent in South Asia. Initially the U.N. claimed the scientific evidence was "inconclusive," citing a 2011 epidemiological report the U.N. itself commissioned. When new evidence kept emerging, they claimed legal immunity.
Only when it became clear that the U.N. was not going to accept responsibility, the two agencies began to look at the situation on a legal level in terms of what they could do to push for accountability.
They filed claims in November 2011, petitioning the U.N. to set up a "standing claims commission" that they had promised in their peacekeeping agreement with Haiti and failed to create. (According to Celso Perez and Muneer I. Ahmad, authors of The Atlantic's "Why the U.N. Should Take Responsibility for Haiti's Cholera Outbreak," the U.N. has promised claims commissions in over 30 Status of Forces Agreements since 1990, but the organization has not established a single one. This means countless victims are left without access to justice when wrongdoing and negligence is done by peacekeepers).
It took the U.N. 15 months, this February, to respond with a very short dismissal.
IJDH and BAI again approached the U.N., proposing the case be submitted to mediation, or that the groups meet and discuss the situation face to face. On July 5, the U.N. responded, repeating their one line dismissal.
"When we first started this work, we didn't expect to be entering into this crazy universe where there is a complete accountability vacuum," Lindstrom said. "We've been trying to avoid litigation, and doing everything we thought we could to try and find an amicable solution to this. From our perspective, it's better for everyone concerned if the U.N. is investing money in water and sanitation infrastructures rather than expensive New York lawyers."
As of July 5 IJDH and BAI are in full preparation of the lawsuit, which they hope will accomplish three things: get the U.N. to invest in water and sanitation infrastructure that will control and eliminate the epidemic; compensation for the victims; a public apology and acceptance of responsibility.
Last week, U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky responded to renewed calls for accountability. In a letter to the editor of The Washington Post, Nesirky asked the international community to donate money to help Haiti recover from the "double tragedy of earthquake and cholera" while saying nothing about the part the U.N. played in visiting this tragedy upon the country in the first place.
If the U.N. would have taken accountability three years ago, thousands of lives could've been saved. It's upsetting to think how this case will affect the good work they're doing in other countries.
Sarah T. Schwab is a Sunday OBSERVER contributor and Fredonia State graduate. Send comments to
or view her Web site at www.SarahTSchwab.com