Can the United Nations be held legally accountable for its actions in a U.S. court? That question is the crux of a lawsuit filed this week that wants to hold the world organization accountable for the deaths of thousands of Haitians in the 2010 outbreak of cholera that still smolders today.
“It’s going to be a pretty drawn-out process,” said Beatrice Lindstrom, an attorney for the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IIJDH), a Boston-based group that filed suit in Manhattan’s Federal District Court to demand that the UN pay compensation for its “reckless,” “negligent” and “misleading” behavior in Haiti’s cholera epidemic, which began in October 2010—ten months after a devastating earthquake-- and has sickened nearly 680,000 people, killed about 8,300, and continues to afflict the battered Caribbean nation.
IJDH is seeking unspecified damages on behalf of eight Haitians—half of them fatal cholera victims—as the nucleus of a much larger class action against the UN, and also demanding that the world organization pay $2.2 billion to complete a still underfunded program of cholera eradication and recovery in the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.
So far, the UN itself has only said through a spokesman that “it is not the United Nations practice to discuss in public claims filed against the Organization.” But the UN made its own position fairly clear last February, when it rejected an earlier IJDH petition for redress on behalf of 5,000 Haitian cholera victims, which the UN declared “non-receivable,” while citing the organization’s traditional diplomatic privileges and immunities, which date back to the UN’s founding in 1946.
Based on traditional U.S. judicial respect for those immunities, the odds on the IJDH lawsuit’s success are long.
But the Haitian case is far from ordinary, and the lawsuit could yet prove to be a watershed moment for the world organization, amid a rising tide of human rights and other opinion—some within the UN itself—that it must do something to compensate victims of the cholera disaster, which most medical experts agree was caused by inadequate human sanitation facilities at a UN peacekeeping camp housing Nepalese soldiers who had been exposed to the water-born disease at home.
The UN’s own High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, this week declared that “those who suffered as a result of that cholera” should be provided with unspecified compensation—though she did not say by who.
Haiti’s Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe, whose government is heavily dependent on peacekeeping and other forms of UN assistance, told the UN General Assembly last month that “we continue to believe that the UN has a moral responsibility” in relation to the cholera disaster, and called for a joint UN-Haitian commission to “study together the ways and means to definitively solve this question.”
The organization that most strongly differs from the compensation consensus is the UN itself, despite the findings of one of its own panels of experts, which declared in May 2013 that “the preponderance of the evidence…does lead to the conclusion that personnel associated with [the UN peacekeeping force] were the most likely source of introduction of cholera into Haiti.”
Instead the UN denied at the time that it had anything to do with the cholera outbreak, according to eyewitnesses made efforts to remove evidence and keep investigators away from its campsite, has continually questioned the scientific validity of any findings that pointed specifically at a UN cause for the disease, wrongly claimed that the soldiers had been tested for cholera before their arrival in Haiti, stonewalled petitioners seeking any form of redress, and, as the IJDH lawsuit points out, taken months and even years to reply to anyone addressing the compensation question.
Moreover, as the IJDH lawsuit points out, one of the essential issues is that the UN itself has failed to create the internal legal mechanism that its immunities require to compensate victims of UN negligence, mishap or other factors on peacekeeping missions, a so-called standing claims commission. The call for such a commission was a central demand of the IJDH petition that the UN previously rejected.
In fact, no standing claims commission has ever been created by the UN in any of its peacekeeping missions around the world, and a UN peacekeeping spokesperson told Fox News months ago that” there has never been need to establish” one.
Instead, the UN has settled damage claims individually outside any such process, which the spokesman said was intended for appeals when claims were not settled satisfactorily. According to the same UN peacekeeping spokesman, the UN has settled hundreds of individual claims for damages in Haiti—virtually all of them for traffic accidents.
The next phase of the lawsuit, according to the IJDH’s Lindstrom, is a 30-day period for the UN to respond to the claim, followed by a rejoinder from the Haitian plaintiffs. She expects the UN to petition to dismiss the lawsuit out of hand—based on traditional UN immunities.
George Russell is editor-at-large of Fox News and can be found on Twitter @GeorgeRussell