The cholera hearing set for October 23, 2014 has a lot of implications, many of which can be bad for the UN if the decision is in the plaintiffs’ favor. The plaintiffs have a very good chance of winning because the UN has provided them no alternate mechanism for justice. The UN, though, is probably not ready for the consequences of a victory for the victims. Now more than ever, the UN should take responsibility for the cholera epidemic and be accountable for its actions.
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Haitian cholera victims could soon bring the UN to court
Rosa Freedman (University of Birmingham), The Conversation
October 8, 2014
In October 2010, a cholera outbreak began in Haiti for the first time in more than 100 years. The strain that was brought into Haiti has been traced to a region in Nepal from which a UN peacekeeping contingent arrived days before the outbreak and it has been established that the United Nations failed adequately to screen its peacekeepers for the disease prior to them entering into Haiti.
Poor waste management at the UN peacekeepers’ camp resulted in infected human faeces being deposited in a tributary that feeds into Haiti’s main river. Within the first 30 days, Haitian authorities recorded almost 2,000 deaths from cholera. At its July 2011 peak, the epidemic was infecting one person every minute – and four years on, the country is still struggling to rid itself of the disease.
But on September 30, a New York judge gave cholera victims pursuing justice a new ray of hope, ordering oral submissions on whether the United Nations can be brought before the court. The hearing date is now set for October 23.
The cholera litigation has been brought by the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), acting on behalf of thousands of claimants. The IJDH is mounting a significant challenge to UN immunity, and has submitted numerous amici briefs from international law scholars and practitioners in the US and in Europe.
Case law from various courts and jurisdictions shows that the UN’s absolute immunity has been challenged, albeit unsuccessfully, on the facts of a great many cases. The basis for those challenges has been that the UN’s legal immunity violates claimants’ rights to access a court and to a judicial remedy – and in all of the cases so far, the UN has argued that individuals’ ability to access alternative mechanisms for dispute resolution means their rights have been realised.
But the Haitian victims have no alternative mechanism through which to resolve their dispute. The scene is therefore set for the first successful challenge to the UN.
If the UN continues to ignore the rights of cholera victims, it may well find its absolute legal immunity blown out of the water. That will be a win for the cholera victims, but it also set a precedent for which the UN is not ready. We could soon start to see cases being brought against the UN in other jurisdictions.
It seems clear that the better alternative for everyone would be for the UN to accept responsibility for the cholera outbreak and to offer an alternative method of dispute resolution while that opportunity remains on the table. Otherwise, the UN’s peacekeeping operations around the world could soon find themselves under a level of scrutiny they have never before experienced.
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