RIVYE KANO, HAITI.
Gathered silently in the shade of a mango tree here, dozens of people patiently wait their turn to tell us about the horror that descended on their community a year ago. Shortly after drinking from the local water source, entire families started to get violently ill with diarrhea and vomiting. It was an outbreak of cholera, the vicious waterborne disease that can kill within hours.
Fathers and mothers and children were rushed over the rutted mountain roads to the local hospital, but many did not reach care in time. Saint Claire Vincent’s mother’s body was taken from the hospital in a bag to be thrown into a pit with other kolera victims. Maudena Zalys and her brother survived, but her father did not. “I can’t explain the feeling I got when they announced he had died,” she says.
The community’s leader had to send his regrets for this meeting. He was burying his father today, another victim of cholera, which has claimed over 6,000 Haitian lives and infected almost a half million more people, all in little more than a year.
The folks here at Rivye Kano and some 5,000 other Haitian cholera victims are represented by the partnership of Port-au-Prince-based Bureau des Avocats Internationaux and Boston-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, who have filed an extraordinary claim against an entity their own petition calls “a unique global leader”–the United Nations.
Overwhelming evidence, including studies by the U.S.-based Centers for Disease Control, the Harvard Cholera Group, and an investigation commissioned by the U.N. itself, identifies the source of the cholera outbreak as Nepalese troops participating in the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH).
Haiti had not reported a single chase of cholera for over 50 years before the U.N. failed to screen the troops coming from Nepal, a country where cholera is endemic. The U.N. then allowed reckless disposal of the troops’ untreated waste into the Meille River, just a few kilometers from this Rivye Kano village and a tributary of Haiti’s largest river, the Artibonite. The claim asks in part for the U.N. to partner with the Haitian government to establish a much-needed country-wide safe water program.
“This case is important because it calls for the United Nations to uphold the principles they promote, especially the most basic human rights of life, health, and justice,” says Bureau des Avocats Internationaux’s directing attorney Mario Joseph. Joseph himself grew up in the rural Artibonite Valley here, drinking from an irrigation ditch that is now contaminated with cholera.
The U.N. is the world’s chief source of rhetoric about the rule of law, and knows well the importance of accountability in this country plagued by an ongoing history of impunity for the powerful. Will the United Nations, which says it is still investigating the claims, acknowledge its duty to remedy this latest disaster in a country whose people have already suffered so much?
Here in Rivye Kano, Ylianise Oscar, who watched helplessly as her mother died last winter, knows what she thinks the answer should be. “A mother is something special and precious; the most important thing in my life,” she says. “The UN should take responsibility for having brought the kolera into our community and our lives.”
Fran Quigley teaches and directs the Health and Human Rights Clinic at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law.