Rights Advocates Suing U.N. Over the Spread of Cholera in Haiti – NYTimes

Rights Advocates Suing U.N. Over the Spread of Cholera in Haiti – NYTimes.com. I think this particular article points to a larger issue in the UN’s legal position: its immunity from domestic lawsuits from ordinary citizens. Ban Ki-Moon has cited this as why the UN will not provide compensation for cholera victims, despite there being hard evidence of the UN’s negligence in managing its sewage that caused the outbreak in the first place.

It’s rather incriminating that the Secretary-General uses the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations created after WWII as his excuse for not providing compensation. He did not deny the UN’s role in the cholera outbreak nor has anyone in the UN accepted responsibility.

From a PR perspective, there is considerable reason for the UN to not allow this incident to open the floodgates to any citizen who wants to sue the UN and the costs – material and otherwise – it will incur to the UN.

It makes it very awkward for an organisation like the UN to be obviously responsible for something like this, yet run peacekeeping missions and disaster relief efforts. In practice, it is unlikely that the UN sends peacekeeping forces to a country without guarantees from the host country that they have immunity. That’s what happened with the UN’s mission to Haiti, MINUSTAH, in 2004. Due to its agreement, the Haitian government cornered itself and cannot take legal action against peacekeepers.

It is important to note, however, the immunity of the UN is normally de facto. Article II section 2 of the Convention states “[t]he United Nations, its property and assets wherever located and by whomsoever held, shall enjoy immunity from every form of legal process except insofar as in any particular case it has expressly waived its immunity.” While this is not absolute immunity,  in practice hardly any country waives the immunity of the UN workers there, much less its military personnel.

On the other hand, article VIII section 29 requires the UN to “make provisions for appropriate modes of settlement of […] disputes arising out of contracts or other disputes of a private law character to which the United Nations is a party”. 

Furthermore, both the Convention and the UN Charter establishes immunities and privileges for the UN on the basis that they are “necessary for the fulfilment of its purposes.” While it may have been wrong to search UN property to prevent the cholera outbreak, which may have directly inhibited its ability to function and invasive of its property, the contamination of public waters in Haiti by a UN base, in my opinion, makes its position much less legally defensible. The Convention seems like a weak shield against the claims that the UN should and can be sued.



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