Haitians' lawyer asks NY judge to nix UN immunity

AP News
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Posted: Oct 23, 2014 3:44 PM

NEW YORK (AP) — An attorney for Haitians seeking compensation from the United Nations for victims of a deadly cholera outbreak asked a judge Thursday to set aside the U.N.'s immunity and let a lawsuit proceed, but a U.S. lawyer said doing so would open up the United Nations to many more lawsuits.

"You have a steep hill to climb," U.S. District Judge J. Paul Oetken told attorney Beatrice Lindstrom as she argued that the United Nations sacrificed its immunity by failing to live up to its obligations to compensate the families of more than 8,000 people who died and over 700,000 sickened in the impoverished Caribbean nation after human waste was dumped into Haiti's principal river in October 2010.

The judge said the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan had been reluctant to let lawsuits proceed when the United Nations' immunity is asserted.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Ellen Blain argued that the United Nations has immunity unless it decides to waive it. She said she appeared in court because the United States has obligations as the U.N.'s host nation.

She said letting the case proceed would subject the United Nations to many more lawsuits.

The U.N., Blain said, "needs to have immunity to complete its mission around the world."

A lawsuit filed last year by lawyers and human rights groups sought unspecified damages, saying the United Nations had failed to give victims any avenue of compensation after harming the Haiti population through reckless sanitation and waste disposal practices.

A similar lawsuit was filed in Brooklyn federal court this year.

Citing diplomatic immunity, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has rejected claims for compensation for cholera victims, but in December 2012, he announced a $2.27 billion initiative to help eradicate cholera in Haiti.

Oetken said he will rule later on whether the lawsuit should be dismissed or whether the United Nations can be considered a defendant that must respond to the claims. The United Nations has repeatedly declined to comment on litigation but has said it was working with the government of Haiti to eradicate cholera.