US court hears UN immunity arguments in Haiti suit

Cholera patients rest in a Doctors Without Borders clinic on November 7, 2012 in Delmas, Haiti (AFP Photo/Thony Belizaire)

New York (AFP) - A US judge on Thursday deferred a decision on whether the United Nations can be sued over a deadly cholera epidemic in Haiti after hearing arguments for and against its immunity.

Federal Judge Paul Oetken presided over a hearing in New York that focused on technical interpretations of provisions in the 1946 Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations.

Cholera has killed more than 8,500 people and infected more than 700,000 in Haiti since 2010, when the plaintiffs allege it was introduced by UN peacekeepers, dispatched in the wake of a devastating earthquake.

Haitian victims of the epidemic argue that the United Nations forfeits its right to immunity by refusing to allow the victims out of court settlement under section 29 of the 1946 convention.

The US government, as host of the UN headquarters in New York, argued that the United Nations has full immunity unless explicitly waived, as stipulated in section two of the convention.

Oetken called Thursday's hearing after a sample group of five Haitian victims filed a complaint in October 2013 alleging the United Nations caused the epidemic and seeking compensation.

A separate suit has since been filed on behalf of 2,600 victims at a separate US federal court in Brooklyn, home to one of the largest expatriate Haitian populations in the world.

Lawyer Beatrice Lindstrom argued that the United Nations had no right to immunity when it had failed to entertain the victims' claims out court.

The US government said that UN immunity was absolute and in no way linked to not providing out of court settlement.

It argued that the International Court of Justice was the only mechanism for redress if Haiti, the United States or any other country filed a complaint.

If Oetken allows the UN to be sued in New York, it could open the flood gates to a slew of other private parties suing the United Nations all over the world.

That would make it impossible for the UN to do its job, the US government said.

Oetken adjourned Thursday's hearing and reserved his decision.

The United Nations has up to now denied any responsibility for the outbreak and has not offered any apology or compensation for the outbreak, which has yet to be brought under control.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has said the United Nations has a moral duty to help Haiti fight the disease and has promised to seek $2.2 billion from international donors to do so.

Before 2010, Haiti had no cholera for at least 150 years.

The source of the cholera epidemic was traced to a river that runs next to a UN camp in the central town of Mirebalais, where Nepalese troops had been based, and the strain is the same as the one endemic in Nepal.

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