Should the United Nations Be Liable for the Haiti Cholera Epidemic?


Attorney, writer, and editor, David S. Kemp ( presents compelling arguments to answer the question: “Should the United Nations be liable for the Haiti cholera epidemic? Here are excerpts with a link to the full article below:

[. . .] Initial findings suggested that the epidemic was triggered by United Nations peacekeepers who arrived from Nepal around the time of the first reported cases. Cholera is endemic in Nepal, and improper sanitation practices by the U.N. camps where they were staying were exacerbated by the damage from the earthquake, leading to a situation highly likely to start the epidemic. Independent sources—including the Centers for Disease Control, the American Society for Microbiology, and Yale Law School and School of Public Health—corroborated that finding. The U.N. initially denied causing the cholera outbreak and appointed an independent panel to investigate.

[. . .] Earlier this month, however, lawyers for Haitian cholera victims filed a class-action lawsuit against the United Nations in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. The lawsuit alleges not only that the U.N. was reckless in causing the cholera epidemic, but also that the international organization intentionally delayed investigations of the outbreak and “obscured discovery of the outbreak’s source.” It seeks compensation for an entire class comprised of victims of Haiti’s cholera epidemic. [. . .] The U.N. has already stated that it is committed to helping Haiti recover from both the earthquake and the cholera epidemic. Its strongest argument for immunity is that it would have more resources to allocate to helping the country if it does not have to deal with simultaneous litigation

Haitian Cholera Victims Deserve Compensation

Perhaps the most fundamental tenet of injury law is that when one party causes injury to another party, the injured party may be entitled to compensation for his or her losses. Different jurisdictions recognize assorted exceptions to this general rule, but the principle holds true in the case of the cholera epidemic. The U.N.’s strongest argument against liability was that of causation; at first, it was not completely clear whether the U.N. peacekeepers had actually caused the epidemic. However, once the U.N.’s own independent investigators, as well as those from other disinterested organizations, established causation with near certainty, that argument could no longer stand.

Weighing the Relative Interests

The facts alleged in the complaint support a conclusion that the behavior of the U.N. peacekeepers constituted more than mere negligence—recklessness or gross negligence. According to the complaint, the U.N. did not adequately screen or treat its workers from Nepal, where cholera is endemic, before sending them to Haiti. Coupled with a sanitary system in the U.N. encampment that allegedly failed to meet local standards, the peacekeepers were all but guaranteed to spread cholera in the country they were supposed to be aiding.

[. . .] Balancing the relative interests against each other, I believe it would be unjust not to hold the U.N. liable for its reckless conduct in Haiti (political and diplomatic considerations aside). To grant the U.N. immunity would effectively condone highly dangerous conduct simply because the international organization is simultaneously attempting to carry out humanitarian work. At the same time, however, I maintain that it is in the Haiti’s best interests to continue working with the U.N. and other aid organizations to rebuild the country. Their experience and support are more likely to result in lasting improvement than are mere financial awards for the victims of the epidemic.

A declaratory judgment against the U.N. for its misconduct would be the best solution to balance these objectives. It could provide a means for the U.N. to settle or resolve any claims while continuing to work with the country to rebuild. Although it would not provide the cholera victims with financial compensation, it would ultimately help the U.N. and other aid organizations provide longer-term solutions to all of the people of that country. Moreover, a declaratory judgment against the U.N. would serve as a clear warning to exercise care in carrying out its aid missions. Although some might criticize this proposal as a mere slap on the wrist for the U.N., I believe it strikes the necessary balance between encouraging humanitarian aid and discouraging reckless conduct while delivering that aid.

See photo above by The New York Times’ Damon Winter (and more information) at

For full article, see

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