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Since the creation of the United Nations, the need for the Organization to enjoy immunity from the juris-diction of Member States has been widely recognized as necessary to achieve its important and far ranging purposes. However, it has also been understood that this immunity was not intended to shield the Organization from responsibility as a “good citizen” on the world stage to respond to justifiable claims against the Organization by third parties resulting from the activities or operations of the Organization. The United Nations has generally achieved these dual objectives, although two recent situations in the peacekeeping context have raised questions about whether it continues to do so, namely the cases involving the Mothers of Srebrenica and the Haiti Cholera victims.
A lawsuit pending in U.S. courts against the United Nations for its responsibility for Haiti’s cholera out-break is the largest challenge yet to the impunity of the organization, which has thus far refused to comply with its legal obligations to provide a settlement mechanism to the victims. With no such avenue of redress available to them, those affected by the epidemic have been left in the bizarre situation where in order to obtain justice they must file lawsuits against the United Nations, whose mandate is to defend the rule of law and promote human rights. If successful, the suit would improve accountability for the organization and underscore the need for it to comply with international law.
The United Nations’ handling of the allegations that its peacekeepers in Haiti are responsible for the largest number of cholera cases and deaths in the world is a public relations as well as public health disaster. Even those likely to be skeptical of mono-causal accounts of mass torts or who see that case unsympathetically— as an incident where “ungrateful” nationals turn on their humanitarian benefactors—cannot possibly be content with how the United Nations has handled this crisis to date. How does one begin to justify a situation in which it takes the United Nations fifteen months to respond to credible allegations of malfeasance, perhaps even recklessness, with a two-sentence response from its top lawyer that asserts simply, without explanation, that the claims of thousands of victims are just “not receivable” because they implicate “political” or “policy” concerns? How can the United Nations expect anyone to sympathize with its position where, according to the United Nations’ own account of when it is liable for the actions of its peacekeepers, it seems to be saying that the United Nations is responsible only for the small torts of its agents (such as traffic accidents) but not for large ones that cause the deaths of 8,500 and counting?