Haiti cholera outbreak: UN will not compensate victims

A boy walks before a facility where trash and waste from a hospital that treats cholera victims is burned near Port-au-Prince, March 23, 2011.

The United Nations has formally rejected a multi-billion-dollar damages claim for a cholera outbreak in Haiti that has been widely blamed on UN peacekeepers.

About 8,000 people have died in the epidemic since October 2010 but the UN will not pay compensation any of the victims, claiming that it is immune from such claims under a 1946 convention setting out the UN's immunities for its actions.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon telephoned Haiti's President Michel Martelly on Thursday "to inform him of the decision and to reiterate the commitment of the United Nations to the elimination of cholera in Haiti," Nesirky said.

Lawyers for thousands of the victims rejected the UN statement and said they now plan to file a case with a court in Haiti, the United States or in Europe.

Some health experts say the cholera epidemic was introduced to Haiti by Nepalese peacekeepers. 

More than 635,000 people have been made sick and the epidemic was sourced to a river that runs next to the Nepalese camp in the central town of Mirebalais. The strain of cholera is the same as one endemic in Nepal.

The UN has never acknowledged responsibility for the epidemic. Instead, it has insisted it was impossible to definitively pinpoint blame.

The UN has had a huge mission in Haiti helping the impoverished country with its political strife and the impact of the January 2010 quake, which killed 250,000 people.

With a new surge in cholera deaths reported, the UN launched a $2.2 billion appeal in December however to raise money to provide clean water and health facilities in the Caribbean nation.

In November 2011, the Boston-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti filed a petition at U.N. headquarters in New York seeking a minimum of $100,000 for the families or next-of-kin of each person killed by cholera and at least $50,000 for each victim who suffered illness or injury from cholera.

According to the Guardian, thus far, the UN has "spent $118m on medical equipment, health networks, water and sewerage improvements, health education at schools and other programs designed to stem the crisis."

However, the UN's rare invocation of its immunity has been highly contentious.  

Human Rights lawyer Ira Kurzban told the BBC that it's "immoral" for the UN to deny its hand in the deaths.  

Cholera, which causes potentially deadly diarrhea, is spread by ingesting food or water contaminated with a bacterium carried in human feces and spread through poor sanitation.

This story includes reports from Agence France Press and Reuters.