SDNY Finds UN Immune in Haiti Cholera Case

by Kristen Boon

In an 8 page decision handed down on January 9, Judge Paul Oetken found that the UN is immune in Delama Georges et. al v. UN, the so-called “Haiti Cholera case.” The decision is available at: http://www.ijdh.org/2015/01/projects/united-states-district-court-southern-district-of-new-york/ The finding that the UN is immune rests on two points: first, that the UN did not expressly waive its immunity under the Convention on Privileges and Immunities, and second, that any alleged inadequacy with the UN’s failure to offer a mode of settlement did not trump the requirement for express waiver. Relying on Brzak v. UN, Judge Oetken wrote:

“The Second Circuit’s decision in Brzak v. United Nations requires that Plaintiffs’ suit against the UN be dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to Rule 12(h)(3). In Brzak, the Second Circuit unequivocally held that “[a]s the CPIUN makes clear, the United Nations enjoys absolute immunity from suit unless ‘it has expressly waived its immunity.’” 597 F.3d at 112 (quoting CPIUN art. II, § 2). Here, no party contends that the UN has expressly waived its immunity. (Statement of Interest at 6 (“In this case, there has been no express waiver. To the contrary, the UN has repeatedly asserted its immunity.”).); (Dkt. No. 43, at 1 (“Waiver is not at issue here.”).) Accordingly, under the clear holding of Brzak, the UN is immune from Plaintiffs’ suit. In addition, MINUSTAH, as a subsidiary body of the UN, is also immune from suit.   … …. “nothing in the text of the CPIUN suggests that the absolute immunity of section 2 is conditioned on the UN’s providing the alternative modes of settlement contemplated by section 29. See Tachiona v. United States, 386 F.3d 205, 216 (2d Cir. 2004) (“When interpreting a treaty, we begin with the text of the treaty and the context in which the written words are used.” (internal quotation marks omitted) (interpreting the CPIUN)). As the Second Circuit held in Brzak, the language of section 2 of the CPIUN is clear, absolute, and does not refer to section 29: the UN is immune from suit unless it expressly waives its immunity.”

Although a decision upholding the UN’s immunity has always been predicted, the spirited hearing on the UN’s privileges and immunities in October provided an opportunity to explore other ways to frame the issue.   In particular, Judge Oetken’s analysis of the language of the treaty (the UN shall provide an appropriate mode of settlement) suggested that effective dispute resolution in private law matters was not a matter of discretion.

The ruling here is consistent with other recent mass torts challenges against the UN, for example, the Mothers of Srebrenica case in the Netherlands where the UN’s absolute immunity was upheld following the massacre of 1996. Nonetheless, two important distinctions with the Srebrenica case are apparent. First, an alternative was available: proceedings against the Dutch state have been successful in at least one case so far.  Second, the Srebrenica cases clearly involved questions of operational necessity which are typically considered public or policy matters.  Under the CPIUN, the UN is not under an obligation to provide appropriate modes of settlement if the matter is not of a private law nature.

The plaintiffs have indicated that they will appeal the ruling.   Meanwhile, two related actions are pending in US district courts.

http://opiniojuris.org/2015/01/20/sdny-finds-un-immune-haiti-cholera-case/

One Response

  1. This appears to be facially contrary to the U.N. Charter which, under Article 103 of the Charter, must prevail over inconsistent treaty obligations. The U.N., and therefore all of its organs and entities, is unavoidably bound to respect and observe customary human rights in view of Article 55(c) of the Charter. Customary human rights include the right to a remedy.

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