This article examines the US Government’s involvement in the ongoing case against the United Nations on behalf of Haiti cholera victims. It argues that the decision by the US to intervene on the UN’s behalf and assert the organization’s immunity to suit is not in line its stated foreign policy goals. Supporting the UN’s evasion from the judicial system altogether, they suggest, is constitutionally problematic and allows the UN to hide behind empty promises. Importantly, they note how UN immunity in this case would violate the fundamental principles of justice and human rights, which were ironically the very principles on which the UN’s immunity was built.
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Foreign Policy in the Time of Cholera
Adam Houston, Peggy Chateauneuf, Beatrice Lindstrom; The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs
October 23, 2014
The ongoing cholera epidemic in Haiti is a disaster. Introduced into Haiti through the shocking negligence of the United Nations, the disease has resulted in over 8,500 deaths since October 2010. The UN has not only failed to remedy the damage, it has not even apologized for the harm it has caused. As a result, Haitian and Haitian-American victims initiated legal action against the UN in U.S. court in October 2013. Caught between support for the principle of the UN’s legal immunity and recognition of the victims’ rights to access justice are longstanding American foreign policy goals of enhancing political stability and promoting the rule of law in Haiti. One year after the lawsuit was filed, this tension came to a head on October 23, when oral arguments by the U.S. government in support of UN immunity, and the Haitian plaintiffs in favor of UN accountability, were heard in Federal Court.
Despite overwhelming evidence that reckless waste disposal on a UN peacekeeping base sparked the epidemic, the UN has repeatedly rebuffed requests for remedies. In violation of its treaty obligations, the UN has also refused to establish a claims commission to hear and settle victims’ claims outside of court, thereby failing to fulfill key duties counterbalancing its right to immunity in domestic courts. Maintaining the position that it need not respond to domestic lawsuits, the UN requested that the U.S. intervene in its stead. The U.S. acquiesced by filing a court brief that supports the total immunity of the UN and advocates for the dismissal of the case. In so doing, it has missed a critical opportunity to further its stated foreign policy goals.
To further rule of law in Haiti and around the world, it is imperative that the U.S. complement its support for UN immunity with a forceful public statement reminding the UN of its legal obligation to establish a claims procedure where victims’ claims can be heard impartially. Such action would make a clear statement to the UN, and to the world, that privilege must always be balanced with responsibility.
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