Advocates for thousands of Haitians killed or sickened by a deadly cholera epidemic are taking the unprecedented step of suing the United Nations, saying U.N. peacekeepers introduced the disease. The suit, to be filed today in Federal District Court in Manhattan, seeks to hold the U.N. accountable for the deadly epidemic that reportedly continues to kill 1,000 Haitians each year. Kojo explores the lawsuit and the U.N.’s legal immunity.


  • Jonathan Katz Author, "The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster" (Palgrave Macillian, 2013)


  • 13:47:21

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIWith more than 8,000 people dead from cholera in Haiti and hundreds of thousands more sickened by the disease in recent years, a human rights group is trying to hold the United Nations responsible. A lawsuit set to be filed today in Federal District Court in Manhattan claims U.N. peacekeepers brought cholera to the island nation and that poor sanitation practices at the U.N. base allowed the disease to spread to Haiti's largest river which people use for drinking and bathing.

  • 13:47:48

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe United Nations has argued it has diplomatic immunity from any claims of negligence. The precedent-setting lawsuit could open the U.N. to legal claims of wrong doing from nations around the world, so observers are watching closely to see whether the court agrees it has jurisdiction to take the case. Joining me now by phone from North Carolina is Jonathan Katz, author of "The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster." Jonathan, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:48:18

    MR. JONATHAN KATZThanks. Thanks for having me.

  • 13:48:20

    NNAMDIAs a reporter in Haiti before and after the 2010 earthquake there, you broke the story linking U.N. peacekeepers to this cholera epidemic. How and when are peacekeepers from Nepal believed to have brought cholera to Haiti?

  • 13:48:34

    KATZIt would be sometime between October 8th of 2010 and no later than about October 16th. It was a regular rotation of soldiers that were coming into the U.N. peacekeeping mission that had been in Haiti since 2004. There had been Nepali peacekeepers there from the beginning. In fact, there had been Nepali peacekeepers in that base from the beginning, and they were leaving an active cholera outbreak that was going on in Nepal at the same time, and didn't receive any proper medical screening.

  • 13:49:03

    KATZAnd when they came in, they came to a base that had very, very poor sanitation, that was frequently jettisoning waste into the waterway where people were drinking, and somehow they had kind of gotten away with it up to that point, but it seems that the luck ran out, and the cholera outbreak seems to have sprung directly from that base.

  • 13:49:23

    NNAMDII remember when we arrived in Haiti in the first week of November to do our broadcast there, that was when we first heard talk of cholera, and by that time there were not very many people dead, and who could predict that ultimately there would be thousands dead and hundreds of thousands sickened. What could -- or what should the United Nations have done differently to prevent the introduction of cholera? Does it test ever peacekeeper for every disease?

  • 13:49:49

    KATZNo. But there are a number of diseases that they're supposed to scene for. Cholera is actually optional basically on the sheet. If the doctors who are doing the screening, and the doctors are from the contingent militaries themselves, if there's a disease that they think that they need to be on the lookout for, and cholera is one of those diseases, they're supposed to screen for it. In this case, actually the screening process the way it's set up wouldn't have done anything because there were 10 days after the soldiers got their screening that they then went back to their home villages in Nepal before they were deployed.

  • 13:50:19

    KATZSo essentially there was no screening between the last time they had been home and when they were sent to Haiti. I mean, I think it's a fair argument that you can't anticipate every single contingency obviously in a complicated emergency situation like the one that Haiti is always in, and especially within the months after the earthquake, it can be very hard to predict what's going to happen. Nonetheless, cholera is a known killer. It is known to be very easily to transmit and anybody could have suspected without there being a specific threat of cholera that there needed to be good and adequate sanitation standards at any U.N. installation anywhere in the world.

  • 13:50:55

    KATZAnd by the way, the U.N. knows this as well, which is why they claimed falsely to have had good EPA standard sanitation at their base at the time that the outbreak started.

  • 13:51:08

    NNAMDIAnd it was known that these U.N. peacekeepers from Nepal were coming from an area in which there was cholera, correct?

  • 13:51:17

    KATZYeah. Yeah. I mean, I think that -- look, I think that it was probably easy to overlook. I'm sure there are, you know, a whole lot of things when you're doing a deployment that you have to look after.

  • 13:51:25


  • 13:51:27

    KATZAnd I completely understand why this would have been something that might have slipped through the cracks, no pun intended. The problem is that once the outbreak began, and the evidence came out very quickly, first in the form of rumor, and then what I observed at the base, and they not very long after that, there started to be increasing scientific evidence pointing to it, the United Nations refused to even consider its own accountability. And so the situation was not only that it had probably inadvertently caused this cholera outbreak, but they didn't want to be held accountable whatsoever, even if trying to find the point source of the disease might have helped to fight the disease and possibly even save lives.

  • 13:52:08

    NNAMDI800-433-8850 is our number here. Do you think the United Nations should be held responsible for the actions of its peacekeeping troops? Give us a call. 800-433-8850. Jonathan, what were these peacekeepers doing in Haiti at the time? They arrived long before the earthquake.

  • 13:52:25

    KATZExactly. The mission -- actually there have been peacekeeping missions coming in and out of Haiti since 1993. This one, Minustah, the U.N. stabilization mission in Haiti began in 2004 in the wake of the overthrow of the president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. And basically, the idea originally was that it was supposed to keep things stable, keep the rebels who had overthrown Aristide so-called from taking over the country, or keeping Aristide's partisans from carrying out reprisals or whatnot. But there was this former mission (word?) that had gone on over a number of years, and one of the strange things was there was a peacekeeping mission in a country that wasn't at war.

  • 13:53:00

    KATZA lot of people assume that the peacekeepers were there, you know, responding to the earthquake, and while there was some of that going on, that had, you know, as you said, the mission had been there long before. That wasn't their primary role, and the peacekeepers that we're talking about, this contingent from Nepal, they weren't even in an area that had been affected by the earthquake.

  • 13:53:16

    NNAMDI800-433-8850. Should countries or non-profit groups be able to sue the United Nations in court. You can also send email to we're taking with Jonathan Katz. He is the author of "The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster." Jonathan, what's happened so far in the effort to hold the United Nations accountable? The U.N. itself convened a panel, prepared an in-depth report tracing the origin of the cholera, but concluded it should not be held responsible.

  • 13:53:47

    KATZYeah. Well, the first thing to remember is that the United Nations was dragged kicking and screaming into doing that investigation. For the first three months, and we're talking about a period in which 4,000 people -- so almost half the people who have died so far, were dying or dead. The United Nations refused any kind of investigation whatsoever. And that was a time when it would have been really important to do so because there was a lot of evidence, bacteriological and other kinds of evidence that were available then that are no longer available.

  • 13:54:13

    KATZThe United Nations was finally pressured. There was a lot of things going on. Frankly, my investigative reporting was part of it. There were also riots that broke out in Haiti over this issue in November of 2010, and the U.N. finally -- Secretary General Ban Ki Moon ordered this investigation which found, by the way, damming evidence that the United Nations troops were most likely responsible for bringing in the disease, but they kind of muddied the water with their conclusion page saying that while it wasn't the deliberate action of the any particular group or individuals, and the United Nations kind of hid behind that for a while.

  • 13:54:46

    KATZThe lawyers came forward representing these victims in 2011. They tried to bring the case forward within United Nations' system itself saying, we understand that you want to be immune from prosecution elsewhere in the world. We respect that, but if you're going to do that, then you need to follow through with the mechanisms that you yourself have put forward to be held accountable, and because the United Nations refused even that form of accountability, that's why we're now seeing this pretty unprecedented step of trying to create a jury trial where the United Nations would actually go on trial in the U.S. Federal Court.

  • 13:55:19

    NNAMDIIs there really any formal U.N. process to claim wrongdoing short of a lawsuit?

  • 13:55:24

    KATZThe United Nations has an agreement with host countries called the Status of Forces agreement. It's pretty standard issue. The United States has them in countries where we send peacekeeping troops as well. And in the Status of Forces agreement, there is a provision for what is called a standing claims commission, which basically says you agree that you won't prosecute our soldiers in your courts or in their home courts, but because we won't let you do that, we will set up this standing claims commission that will adjudicate allegations of wrongdoing.

  • 13:55:53

    KATZA standing claims commission has never been set up in the history of the United Nations peacekeeping, and certainly was never set up in Haiti. And so that was the first thing that these lawyers were trying to do. They were saying, form a standing claims commission and let them hear the case, and the U.N. said, we aren't going to do that, and they didn't even really give a reason why. They kind of appealed to a fairly arcane legal principle, but it basically just said we don't want to.

  • 13:56:17

    NNAMDIHere is Chris is Washington DC. Chris, you're in the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:56:22

    CHRISHi, Kojo. Thank you for taking my call. My question for your guest is what would the ramifications of the lawsuit be? Are you looking for, you know, to receive funds for the families affected, and if so, how would they distributed, and how can you be sure that they would even use, you know, use that funding for treatment purposes. And thank you very much, and I'll take my call off the air.

  • 13:56:45

    NNAMDILet's be clear. It's not Jonathan Katz who is filing the lawsuit, but human rights lawyers. But Jonathan, go ahead, please.

  • 13:56:51

    KATZYeah. Sure. So what the lawyers from the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti have been asking for is both direct compensation to the victims and the victims' families themselves. And remember that in addition to the loss of life, we're also talking about very poor families who very often lost their breadwinner, if not the breadwinner's life, than at least the breadwinner was unable to work for a period or may even still be debilitated and unable to work.

  • 13:57:14

    KATZSo there actually is a monetary need there. And then further than that, they've been asking for the United Nations to fund a $2.2 billion price tag to create water and sanitation infrastructure as well as cholera treatment in Haiti. And so there are all kinds of different money, and I suppose if the case were actually to move forward into a jury phase, they might even -- we might see a jury deciding to, you know, commit money in areas that we haven't even discussed yet. But that's so far down the road in terms of how the money would be spent, it's not worth -- it's not worth speculating about now.

  • 13:57:47

    KATZThe last thing I would say about that is that the other important precedent that would be set is if the United Nation can be held accountable in a court of law for its actions, I think we might see other cases coming from other parts of the world from Congo, from the Balkans, from Rwanda, from other places like that that -- in which other grievances might be brought forward.

  • 13:58:07

    NNAMDIJonathan Katz. He's the author of "The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster." Jonathan Katz, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:58:17

    KATZThanks. It was a pleasure.

  • 13:58:18

    NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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