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The Daily Nation: Policy change is needed to hold UN responsible for its crimes

August 31, 2016
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Rasna Warah has written a strongly worded opinion piece in The Daily Nation, a major news source in Kenya.

She reacts to the United Nations’ long overdue and partial admission of culpability in bringing a cholera epidemic to Haiti. As Warah points out, though Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has finally accepted some responsibility for transmitting the deadly and debilitating disease to Haitians through carelessness in waste disposal by peacekeepers, victims of cholera and their families still have no remedy for their suffering. They lack access to the UN’s own internal justice system, and national courts – which would normally resolve disputes like this – grant legal immunities to most UN staff. The immunities can only be waived by the Secretary-General, who, after six years has admitted the UN is responsible for the epidemic, and has taken no steps to open the door to a legal case that might hold the UN accountable.

Warah also makes the point that these same immunities often hobble UN whistleblowers who try to speak up about corruption and abuse. Because the United Nations cannot be held accountable in most national courts, and the Secretary-General has shown himself to be hostile to whistleblowers’ appeals for protection, those who suffer reprisal after disclosing misconduct or criminality must have effective rights that protect them.  

Read the full story here.

In 2010, United Nations peacekeepers from Nepal were implicated in the spreading of cholera that killed more than 9,000 people in Haiti and made hundreds of thousands of others very sick.

Apparently, the Nepalese peacekeepers were not using proper sanitation at the base where they were camped and raw sewage was dumped into Haiti’s largest river.

Despite scientific evidence that showed that the strain of cholera in Haiti matched the one prevalent in Nepal at the time, the UN failed to take responsibility for the deaths. To add insult to injury, it began a fund-raising campaign to deal with the cholera epidemic.

Ironically, Haiti had not suffered a cholera outbreak for more than a century until the peacekeepers arrived. The disease is now classified as endemic in the country.

Now, six years after the cholera outbreak in Haiti, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has finally admitted that UN peacekeepers were responsible for the spread of the disease and has promised to assist those who were most affected.


This is an unprecedented admission of culpability by the UN. However, it still does not remedy a fundamental flaw in the rules that govern this world body — that of immunity from prosecution.

When the families of the cholera victims sued the UN through a class action suit in the United States, the case was dismissed on the grounds that the UN and its employees enjoy immunity from prosecution. This month a US Court of Appeal upheld that judgement. This means that the victims cannot legally claim compensation from the UN.

This is not the first time that a US court has thrown out a case citing the UN Charter, which grants UN employees immunity from prosecution.

Immunity means that UN employees can get away with all kinds of crimes or misdemeanours, a privilege that is not even accorded to ambassadors, who can be tried in their own countries if they are implicated in any wrongdoing.

So if a UN staff member steals a million dollars from a poverty alleviation project or sexually abuses children in a war-torn country, he cannot be taken to court to face charges.

The only time a UN employee can be taken to court is if the Secretary-General waives his or her immunity, which rarely happens.

However, as Muneer I. Ahmed and Alice M. Miller, authors of Peacekeeping Without Accountability, have argued, immunity from a lawsuit is not the same as freedom from legal obligation.

As a global organisation trusted by millions, they say, the UN bears the responsibility to demonstrate how it fulfils its legal obligations to provide remedy, including financial compensation for victims, for the harm it has caused.


Philip Alston, the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights, calls the UN’s policy towards Haiti’s cholera victims “morally unconscionable, legally indefensible, and politically self-defeating.”

How can the world’s governments — who fund the UN and pay its staff’s salaries — allow the UN and its employees to get away with all sorts of crimes and unethical or irresponsible activities?

The UN makes the argument that it has its own internal justice systems that deal with wrongdoing, but as many UN whistleblower cases have shown, the UN’s internal justice systems are so broken and ridden with conflict of interest that few UN employees who seek justice through them have been able to get it. Moreover, the UN is not only generally hostile to whistleblowers, it fails to protect them when they face retaliation.

In those rare cases where the UN’s internal justice system rules in favour of the victim, the UN Secretary-General can — and often does — appeal the decision.

Moreover, the internal justice system only deals with current or former UN employees’ cases. Victims of the UN’s or its employees’ actions, such as the people who contracted cholera in Haiti, do not have access to these internal justice systems.

When these victims approach national courts with their cases, the judge always cites the immunity clause, which is why there have been hardly any cases where victims have obtained justice.

I think it is about time the UN revised its charter and the conventions that grant its employees immunity from prosecution.

It is also critical that an external independent court be established to deal with cases where UN employees are implicated in criminal, unethical, or irresponsible activities.

Rasna Warah
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