U.N.’s immunity from Haiti cholera responsibility comes under challenge

A community member gathers water from a spring in the village of Trianon as staff members of the National Directorate for Drinking Water and Sanitation test the water for chlorination. (CDC/flickr)

Victims of Haiti’s cholera outbreak may soon have their day in court. The U.S. Court of Appeals in New York announced a hearing to determine whether the U.N. lost its immunity for not providing a justice mechanism for people sickened by cholera imported to Haiti by a Nepalese peacekeeping unit. Lawyers for the victims made their arguments on Tuesday.

“Immunity does not mean impunity,” said Beatrice Lindstrom, a lawyer for the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), a legal advocacy group based in Boston that represents the cholera victims, to the judges.

The U.N. and its lawyers did not appear before the court. It has taken the stance that it does not have to answer to the courts because of its immunity status. Based on the line of questioning by the three appellate judges, there might be a breakthrough for the case against the U.N.

Cholera quickly spread in Haiti starting in October 2010, just months after an earthquake devastated the country. More than 9,000 people have died in the five years since the outbreak. Haiti is a country with no history of cholera for more than a century, and possibly ever. Humanitarian groups scrambled to support the more than 750,000 people infected with cholera and the U.N. launched a 10-year cholera-elimination plan. Advocates for the victims say that is not enough.

IJDH lawyers seek damages for the victims of the outbreak, a public apology from the U.N., and for the U.N. to take full responsibility for completely stopping the spread of cholera in Haiti. Their case Georges v. United Nations was originally dismissed by the District Court in January 2015. The court sided with the U.N. and the U.S. Department of Justice that the international body had immunity in the case.

A November letter to the U.N. written by four special rapporteurs and an independent expert, appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council, argued strongly that invoking immunity “undermines the reputation” of the U.N. The group urges the U.N. to provide a mechanism that will review the claims of the victims and allow them to seek justice.

“Without wishing to take a position on the merits of the invocation of immunity in these contexts, we would only note that the result of the claim so far successfully made by the United Nations is to leave the victims without an effective remedy, while there does not seem to be any prospect for a proper accountability,” says the letter.

Much of the legal disagreement up to this point has to do with whether or not the U.N. can be taken to court in the U.S. for its actions. There is no direct denial regarding the fault of the U.N. for causing the cholera outbreak. That’s because the overwhelming scientific evidence points to the fact that cholera was brought to Haiti by Nepalese peacekeepers stationed as a part of the U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti.

“The U.N. does not seriously deny that it brought cholera to Haiti and its own documents declare that it has an obligation to provide justice to people injured by U.N. activities. The U.N.’s position is that nothing can compel it to comply with its undeniable legal obligations,” Lindstrom argued to the court.

New York appellate judges also heard arguments from an assistant United States attorney to dismiss the case. She again said that the signing of the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the U.N. by the U.S. and Haiti means there is no grounds for the case. IJDH lawyers disagreed, arguing that the document says that immunity is not applicable if the U.N. does not provide an alternative mechanism for justice.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.