Could a case that might make its way before the Supreme Court be the end of the United Nations’ immunity? Some observers say yes.
According to Fox News, the case involves Nepalese peacekeepers sent to Haiti under the aegis of the United Nations after the devastating 2010 earthquake in that country. The peacekeepers ended up introducing cholera to the country — something for which the U.N. was slow to take responsibility. The disease spread when waste from the peacekeepers’ headquarters leaked into the local river, Fox reported.
In 2017, The New York Times reported that “[a] $400 million voluntary trust fund for Haiti to battle cholera was created last year by Ban Ki-moon, then the secretary general, when he apologized for the United Nations’ role after having repeatedly denied any responsibility.
“But the fund, meant in part to compensate cholera victims, garnered only a few million dollars and is now nearly empty,” they reported.
“Entreaties by Mr. Ban’s successor, António Guterres, for charitable contributions have gone unanswered. Moreover, a proposal announced on June 14 by Mr. Guterres’s office to repurpose $40.5 million in leftover money from the soon-to-be disbanded peacekeeping mission in Haiti for use in the cholera fight has faced strong resistance from other countries.”
“We simply did not do enough with regard to the cholera outbreak and its spread in Haiti. We are profoundly sorry for our role,” Ban Ki-moon had said.
However, the plaintiffs in the suit against the U.N. say that not a dollar of the funds reached the victims.
Now, they’re hoping the Supreme Court takes up their lawsuit, a case which could test the constitutionality of the U.N.’s immunity from litigation.
“The Secretary General has already apologized and accepted responsibility, stating that the evidence showed the U.N. caused the death and illness that ravaged Haiti,” James Haggerty, lead counsel for the plaintiffs, said. “Any argument that they haven’t accepted responsibility for what they did to the people of Haiti is a fiction. And they had previously agreed to accept liability in exactly these sorts of situations.”
“The trust fund was announced with great fanfare, but to my knowledge, it has collected little over 5%. These trust funds are no more than PR stunts — a voluntary passing of the hat,” he added. “The UN acts like they owe Haiti only voluntary acts of kindness, rather than an obligation to compensate the victims of this plague. That’s why trust funds sit near empty, while the victims of the UN’s recklessness continue to suffer.
“Accepting liability isn’t a charitable act. It’s an enforceable obligation. We believe the Supreme Court is going to agree.”
That’s why they’re suing — even though the United Nations generally enjoys immunity to lawsuits. Edward Flaherty, a Swiss lawyer who filed an amicus brief in the case on behalf of an NGO, says he hopes the case “will allow the Court to finally examine the constitutionality of UN immunity.”
Flaherty pointed to another recent precedent set by the Supreme Court which he said looks promising.
“The court recently decided a case in its last term against the International Finance Corp, an arm of the World Bank which enjoys similar immunity to that of the UN, the Court suggested it is not terribly sympathetic to laws that deny litigants their day in court – as UN immunity has done to the injured Haitians,” Flaherty said.
For Marie Laventure, the lead plaintiff in the case, it’s a personal matter.
“My father and stepmother both died because the U.N. brought cholera to Haiti,” she told Fox News in an email.
“Many other Haitians, including Haitian Americans, died as well. This may be the last chance for justice for those hurt by the U.N.’s actions. The U.N. must be held responsible so they know there are consequences for the damage they cause in places like Haiti,” Laventure added.
And the damage was significant. Tens of thousands of Haitians died from cholera in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake and hundreds of thousands caught the disease.
If the United Nations is going to be held to account, however, first they need the Supreme Court to hear it. The plaintiffs will find out if the case will be heard when the court reconvenes in October.
Courtney Smith, acting dean of Seton Hall’s School of Diplomacy and International Relations, said that immunity for international organizations “is to facilitate their ability to carry out their duties free of interference by the governments of the places they operate.”
“These obstacles can be insurmountable if national governments and local actors are able to impede their work through legal restrictions and threats of politically motivated prosecutions,” he added.
“That being said, immunity must be balanced with accountability. It cannot be a license or excuse for behavior that harms the reputation and impartiality of the organization. Even though immunity is a legal principle, its actual implementation often rests on political calculations.”
And that’s the problem: accountability. The United Nations clearly hasn’t been accountable to the people of Haiti and it won’t be until a government forces them to be. A lawsuit is a start, but more needs to be done.
It wasn’t just the profound negligence of the Nepalese peacekeepers in this situation. It’s the fact that the United Nations has made only desultory moves toward making it right. And they don’t have to do anything more — they’re not going to be held legally accountable, after all.
“If successful, the challenge in Laventure to U.N. immunity will force the U.N. to dramatically reform its corrupt practices and root out its rogue employees, or else face a tsunami of lawsuits in the US, if not in the other jurisdictions around the world where it operates, which could threaten its very existence,” Flaherty said.
Haggerty, meanwhile, had a much starker warning.
“The next Haiti is out there just waiting to happen. Unfettered Immunity is a cancer that is rotting the UN to the core,” he said.
One hopes this is where the organization’s unfettered immunity comes to an end.
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