The UN is currently involved in two federal lawsuits challenging its longstanding immunity under the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations.
In early 2010, Haiti endured a 7.0 earthquake with more than 50 aftershocks measuring 4.5 or worse. The death toll was estimated as high as 160,000, the injury toll was far higher, and hundreds of thousands of residences and tens of thousands of commercial buildings were destroyed or badly damaged.
As is its custom, the UN sent help. Unfortunately, since October 2010, Haiti has also endured an ongoing cholera outbreak that has killed more than 8,000 people and sickened more than 700,000 people. Haiti blames the UN for bringing cholera to Haiti when the UN went to assist recovery from the 2010 earthquake.
Cholera is a bacterial infection that normally occurs in places with poor sanitation and causes severe vomiting and diarrhea that can lead to dehydration and death. Both a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and a Yale report revealed evidence that UN peacekeepers are responsible for spreading cholera in Haiti. They believe that a UN peacekeeping force from Nepal allowed human waste from their base to leak into a tributary of the Artibonite River, which was the source of drinking water for many Haitians. Consuming the affected water caused the cholera outbreak, the first in Haiti’s history, to begin and wildly spread.
For three months after suspicions were aroused about UN responsibility, both the UN and CDC officials opposed investigation into the cause of the cholera outbreak, stating that the cause was “not important” compared to actually combatting the disease. Determined Haitians rioted, demanding that the Nepalese force be removed from Haiti. In late 2011, more than 5,000 Haitian cholera victims petitioned the UN for $ hundreds of millions in reparations. The UN finally responded in early 2013, claiming immunity under the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations. Undeterred, the Haitians filed suits, the first in late 2013 in Federal District Court for the Southern District of New York and the second in 2014.
The UN argues that immunity from lawsuits is vital to its work. Allowing the suits to proceed would set a precedent exposing the UN to a slew of new lawsuits worldwide and the UN “needs to have immunity to complete its mission around the world.”
The parties made their arguments to the court in late 2014 and are awaiting a decision as to whether the UN will retain its longstanding immunity or be held accountable for bringing a devastating illness to the very people it intended to help.
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