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U.N. immune from accountability for cholera in Haiti, says U.S. court

A demonstrator holds up a sign that reads in Creole "Cholera of U.N. is a crime against humanity" during a protest against the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. (Credit: AP)

Victims of the cholera outbreak brought to Haiti by U.N. peacekeeping troops from Nepal cannot sue the body in U.S. courts, a district judge ruled. Judge J. Paul Oetken of U.S. District Court in Manhattan agreed with the U.N.’s own assessment that it was immune from such a lawsuit, at the end of last week.

Oetken cited the issue of immunity and concerns that allowing the case could open the door to more lawsuits against the U.N. as reasons for throwing out the case.

“Where such an express waiver is absent, the U.N. and (its operation in Haiti) are immune from suit,” he wrote in his decision.

Human rights activists and lawyers with the Boston-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, IJDH, brought forward the lawsuit saying that the U.N. did not fulfill its obligation to allow victims of the cholera outbreak to seek justice. They plan to appeal.

“We are disappointed that the U.S. government and the Court accepted this position, but more disappointed that the U.N. would take it. It goes against everything the U.N. is supposed to stand for,” said Brian Concannon Jr., director of IJDH and counsel for the plaintiffs, in a statement.

Haiti still struggles with an outbreak that started in October 2010. More than 700,000 people have been infected and it is responsible for more than 8,600 deaths in more than four years. While the U.N. has taken a leadership role in responding to the crisis, it has not admitted responsibility.

“Had earthquake responders respected their international law obligations, their efforts would have been more sustainable, more accountable to the Haitian people, and a better investment of taxpayers’ generosity,” said Concannon, before the court ruling. “Had the U.N. complied with its legal obligations for recklessly introducing cholera, the epidemic would be over.”

Independent studies, including one supported by the U.N., determined that the first cholera outbreak in 100 years – and maybe ever – was brought to the country by a peacekeeping mission from Nepal. The strain matched the same one found in Nepal when the peacekeepers were in country. Improper disposal of waste by the mission in Haiti led to contamination of a nearby river that led to the sudden onset of a cholera outbreak.

Lawyers representing the victims want the U.N. to admit guilt, apologize, make the necessary money available to eradicate cholera from Haiti and pay damages to victims. The lawsuit is the result of the U.N. not meeting all of the conditions and for not setting up a process where-by victims can hold the U.N. accountable. They say that the 1946 international convention allowing the U.N. to block lawsuits brought against it does not apply because of the U.N. not meeting its own promises.

Oetken disagreed. He pointed to the convention’s protections as the reason he will not hear the case. The U.N. must waive its immunity before a lawsuit can proceed.

“[W]here such an express waiver is absent, the U.N. and its subsidiary body MINUSTAH are immune from suit,” he wrote.

The lawyers representing the cholera victims said the court was wrong.

“The court’s decision implies that the U.N. can operate with impunity. We don’t think that is the law and we don’t think the Court of Appeals will find that either,” said Beatrice Lindstrom, an attorney with IJDH.

Appeal is one option, and two pending lawsuits against the U.N. hold out the potential that the victims may see their day in court. Meanwhile, the U.N. continues to evade the question of responsibility for causing the outbreak and has pointed to its immunity in discussing the court case.

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About Author

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.