More than half a million Haitians have contracted cholera, and an advocacy group has filed a complaint with the United Nations blaming the fast-moving epidemic on UN peacekeepers who allegedly allowed raw sewage to leach into a tributary of the nation's largest river.
After half a century without a single case of cholera, the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti says, a country already ravaged by a massive earthquake, intractable poverty and waves of political instability has now seen five percent of the population contract the illness, and more than 6,000 people die from it, because of the reckless actions of peacekeepers from Nepal.
"The sickness, death, and ongoing harm from cholera suffered by Haiti's citizens are a product of the UN's multiple failures," states the complaint filed by the advocacy group, which represents more than 5,000 cholera victims and their families. "These failures constitute negligence, gross negligence, recklessness, and deliberate indifference for the lives of Haitians."
The allegations, announced during a press conference Tuesday, are liable to further heighten tensions between the Haitian people and the more than 7,000 United Nations peacekeepers stationed there on a mission to protect them. In September, ABC News reported on a cell phone video that allegedly showed the brutal assault of a young man at the hands of UN peacekeeping troops from Uruguay. The video sparked street protests and an outcry from Haitians who objected to the lack of accountability for the brigades of blue-helmeted troops that lived on bases inside the country.
While the assault on the Haitian man tapped into what Haitians interviewed by ABC News called a growing sense of distrust of the UN mission there, the cholera outbreak has had more far-reaching and catastrophic implications for the country. The complaint filed Tuesday estimates that more than 457,000 have been infected, some 6,477 have died, and attempts to corral the outbreak have so far proven unsuccessful.
"Once cholera is introduced, it is extremely difficult to eradicate," the complaint says. "The cholera epidemic is expected to persist in Haiti for at least several years."
Cholera DNA Matches Nepal Cholera
In an interview with ABC News in September, a top UN official said his organization was deeply concerned about the outbreak, and was devoting resources to combat it. But he did not believe there was conclusive proof that the UN troops were responsible for carrying cholera into Haiti. Anthony Banbury, the assistant secretary general for field support, told ABC News that the UN commissioned four independent research studies with the goal of tracing the origins of the outbreak, but that it remained unclear if the troops were to blame, or if a backpacker or aid worker or tourist was ultimately at fault.
"We don't know if it was the U.N. troops or not," Banbury said. "That's the bottom line."
The Institute for Democracy in Haiti lays out its case in a 37-page complaint, which it filed with the UN under the rules established when the international body first deployed peacekeepers to Haiti. It describes how cholera is endemic in Nepal, how new Nepalese troops arrived in the village of Meille in October of 2010, how the troops failed to maintain sanitary conditions at their encampment, how witnesses described dark plumes of refuse leaching into a major waterway, and how cholera exploded in the region near the Meille camp in the weeks after their arrival.
Further, it cites numerous independent studies that match the strain of cholera to the one in Nepal using DNA and other evidence. One study, published in the medical journal The Lancet in July, found that all the evidence pointed to the Nepalese UN troops.
"There was an exact correlation in time and places between the arrival of a Nepalese battalion from an area experiencing a cholera outbreak and the appearance of the first cases in Meille a few days after," said the study by leading epidemiologist Renaud Piarroux. "The remoteness of Meille in central Haiti and the absence of report of other incomers make it unlikely that a cholera strain might have been brought there another way."
The advocacy group has asked the UN to empanel an independent claims commission to review their complaint, and award them a financial judgment to compensate victims for their suffering and economic losses. They are also seeking a greater investment by the UN in efforts to eradicate the deadly disease.