Cholera treatment center in Port-au-Prince, Haiti..jpg
Cholera treatment center in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
Photograph: Photo by CDC Global, used under CC BY

The United Nations has "a moral responsibility" to the victims of the 2010 cholera outbreak in Haiti, a UN spokesman said Friday, after a US court ruled that the organization has immunity against prosecution for allegedly causing the outbreak.

The court ruling released late Thursday came just hours after the UN acknowledged for the first time its involvement in bringing cholera to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. The UN had deployed peacekeepers from Nepal, a country known to have a cholera outbreak, without testing them in advance or ensuring they were treated.

According to the ruling handed down by the US Second Circuit Court of Appeals, the UN has immunity from judicial processes regardless whether it offers an alternate way to settle claims with people its operations have harmed.

The decision upholds an earlier dismissal of a class-action lawsuit brought against the UN by victims of the cholera outbreak seeking compensation for the harm caused by the disease, which has killed at least 8,600 Haitians and sickened more than 650,000 since 2010.

Civil society groups, legal experts and scientists have said that the outbreak was caused by poor sanitation at the UN camp, which lead to cholera contaminating the Artibonite River, Haiti's primary water source.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon took note of the court decision and regretted "the terrible suffering" of Haitians because of the disease, said Farhan Haq, Ban's deputy spokesman on Friday.

"The United Nations has a moral responsibility to the victims of the cholera epidemic and for supporting Haiti in overcoming the epidemic and building sound water, sanitation and health systems," Haq said.

Mario Joseph, managing attorney of the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI), which has been involved in the court case, said that the ruling was disappointing, but his organization would continue to fight for justice.

"This outcome places the onus back on the UN to follow through on its commitments to respond justly to victims out of court if it does not want to be an organization that stands for impunity," Joseph said.

The UN said Thursday it "needs to do much more" to address its own role in the initial outbreak of cholera in Haiti, marking the first time that the organization came close to admitting responsibility for the disease that has been ravaging Haiti for the past six years.

On Friday, the UN reiterated its commitment to fighting cholera, urging UN member states to provide funding for the eradication of the disease.

Haq noted that the UN chief was developing a package to "provide material assistance and support to those Haitians most directly affected by cholera."

The details of the plan will be presented over the next two months.

The 2010 magnitude 7 earthquake killed an estimated 100,000 to 300,000 people in Haiti.

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