Immunity vs. Impunity? International Organizations and Human Rights

“Absolute immunity” is a phrase typically favored by ex-dictators and other human rights abusers. Yet later this week, the United Nations’ agents in the State Dept. will argue before a Manhattan federal judge that the UN has absolute immunity from legal process[1].

The case concerns the fact that the UN introduced cholera to Haiti in 2010. The dispute isn’t over causation – the scientific community concurs that the UN is to blame. The issue is whether the UN is immune from service and lawsuit for any harms caused in any country, no matter how grotesque.

Most people don’t realize yet, but this case will matter to everyone interested in international humanitarian or inter-governmental work. While the UN Charter provides the basis for immunity in this case, the question lurking in the background is this: will the world opt for an international equivalent of a “Good Samaritan” law that protects those doing “good work” from liability for any harms committed abroad while working for an international organization? Legal scholars are already framing the case in those terms.

Yet there are signs of an emerging trend toward accountability for international organizations. Most notably, the UN Mission in Congo was pushed to adopt heightened standards for civilian protection in peacekeeping. Eventually, the UN adopted due diligence standards to ensure the UN’s Congo forces weren’t underwriting human rights abuses. But as of now, these accountability mechanisms are exclusively internal – which, as Haiti painfully illustrates, can be woefully inadequate.

The Haiti cholera case stands to be a milestone in the development of this area of international law.

That’s why we hope you’ll join us for an event with the legal team bringing the lawsuit on behalf of Haitian families, and the Al Jazeera filmmakers who documented the case. See the flyer below for more details, and contact Nathan Yaffe (ndy207 [at] nyu [dot] edu) with any questions.

Haiti in the Time of Cholera Poster


[1] The exception to this is if they “expressly waive” their right to immunity, which has never happened in the UN’s 69-year history.


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