On the eve of the fifth anniversary of the devastating earthquake that hit Haiti in 2010, a U.S. judge dismissed a lawsuit against the United Nations (UN) for its catastrophic introduction of cholera to Haiti, deeming the UN absolutely immune from suit.
“For the 8,700 Haitians who have died and the 720,000 that have suffered from cholera, this decision implies that there is nowhere in the world they can turn to seek justice,” said Mario Joseph of the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux in Haiti, a human rights lawyer for cholera victims. “That is irreconcilable with their human rights and basic notions of justice.”
The class action lawsuit, Georges et al. v. United Nations et al., was filed in the Southern District of New York in October 2013 after the UN rebuffed extensive efforts to seek justice through the UN’s settlement process. The UN rejected claims filed by 5,000 victims of cholera in November 2011 as “not receivable” without providing legal justification. That position has been widely criticized as unjustifiable in view of the UN’s legal and moral obligations.
“The Court’s decision implies that the UN can operate with impunity. We don’t think that is the law and we don’t think the Court of Appeals will find that either,” said Beatrice Lindstrom, an attorney with the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) who represents the plaintiffs.
The UN never responded to the lawsuit, but instead urged the U.S. Government to seek dismissal on its behalf. The U.S./UN position included a radical, unprecedented interpretation of international agreements granting the UN immunity that ignored the UN’s promise in those agreements to settle claims filed against it outside of court. Plaintiffs argued that where the UN refuses to comply with its own obligations under those agreements, it cannot enjoy immunity. The plaintiffs’ position is supported by European courts and by many legal experts, including several with UN connections, who filed three amicus curiae briefs with the court and argued in support of plaintiffs at a hearing in October.
Despite calls from around the world — including from the UN’s own human rights chief — that the UN must provide remedies to the victims of cholera, the organization has persistently refused.
“The UN cannot deny that it is responsible for Haiti’s cholera, or that it has an obligation to its victims. The UN’s only defense is that no one can make it respect the law. We are disappointed that the U.S. government and the Court accepted this position, but more disappointed that the UN would take it. It goes against everything the UN is supposed to stand for,” said Brian Concannon, Jr., Esq., Director of IJDH and counsel for the plaintiffs.
Cholera cases have surged in recent months, and a plan to eliminate cholera from Haiti remains vastly underfunded at only 12%. Without compensation for the death of breadwinners, families have had to pull their children out of school, as is the case for Lisette Paul, one of the plaintiffs in the case.
The UN continues to come under fire for its unyielding position on the cholera crisis. In a press statement released on December 19, 2014, U.S. Congressman John Conyers (D-MI) called the cholera crisis “a stain on the world’s conscience.” Conyers led a letter signed by 77 members of Congress to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, calling on him to immediately ensure that cholera victims have access to a settlement mechanism for resolution of their legal claims.
“Today’s decision is one small part of a long struggle for justice. We won’t stop fighting until the UN cholera stops killing Haitians,” Joseph added.
Two other lawsuits filed by other groups are still pending in U.S. courts.
The decision is available here.