Rashmee Roshan Lall in Port-au-Prince and Ed Pilkington in New York THE GUARDIAN
The UN has taken the rare step of invoking its legal immunity to rebuff claims for compensation from 5,000 victims of the Haiti cholera epidemic, the worst outbreak of the disease in modern times and widely believed to have been caused by UN peacekeepers importing the infection into the country.
Citing a convention laid down in 1946, the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, telephoned President Michel Martelly of Haiti to tell him that the UN was not willing to compensate any of the claimants. The epidemic has killed almost 8,000 people and stricken hundreds of thousands more – about one out of every 16 Haitians.
For the UN to claim immunity for a crisis that most experts are convinced it unwittingly caused through its own disaster relief mission is highly contentious. The infection is thought to have been carried into Haiti by UN peacekeepers from Nepal sent to help with disaster relief following the 2010 Haiti earthquake.
Ban’s spokesperson issued a carefully worded statement that pointedly did not accept or deny liability for the epidemic. But the statement made clear that the UN would not countenance the compensation claims, invoking its immunity from such legal disputes under section 29 of the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the UN.
The convention was one of the first treaties passed by the UN at its inception in 1946. In it, the UN grants to itself legal protections in the countries in which it operates, while section 29 extends that immunity to any UN worker operating in an official capacity.
This is not the first time that the UN has invoked its own immunity, but it is a highly unusual move made more controversial by the extreme distress in Haiti to which it relates. Sensitivities are running high within the UN headquarters in New York.