MANHATTAN (CN) - Blaming the United Nations for the "worst cholera epidemic in modern times," a lawyer for the Haitian victims told a federal judge Thursday that diplomatic immunity has prevented her clients from delivering a lawsuit some 4 miles uptown to the organization's headquarters overlooking the East River.
While Secretary General Ban Ki-moon acknowledged the UN's "moral responsibility" earlier this year for the outbreak that killed 8,000 and infected 700,000 Haitians, he has insisted that the institution should not face legal liability.
The United Nations has dodged a class action lawsuit from the victims for more than a year.
Lawyers for Delama Georges, whose father died during the outbreak, and other Haitians have been unable to serve the federal complaint because UN premises is considered "inviolable." They asked a federal judge to acknowledge service, or allow for the unprecedented step of mailing, faxing, or emailing their lawsuit to the United Nations.
Hoping to avoid a diplomatic headache, the United States dispatched attorneys from the Justice Department and State Department to prevent that fate.
This first hearing in the high-profile case Thursday drew dozens of spectators to the grand courtroom of New York's Thurgood Marshall Courthouse, but arguments largely focused on arcane details of international law.
Beatrice Lindstrom, representing the plaintiffs for the Institute of Justice & Democracy in Haiti, said the fundamental facts of the case are "not disputed."
Her clients' lawsuit alleges that the UN responded to a Haiti's earthquake four years ago by sending personnel from Nepal, "a country in which cholera is endemic and where a surge in infections had just been reported."
The UN troops disposed of human waste in open-air pits outside their base on the banks of the Meille Tributary that flows into the Artibonite River, Haiti's longest river and primary water source, the Haitians say.
Lindstrom reminded the court that former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who served as the UN Special Envoy for Haiti, acknowledged two years ago that the virus traced back to a U.N. peacekeeper.
For U.S. District Judge Paul Oetken, however, 2nd Circuit precedent on immunity gives the Haitians "a steep hill to climb" with their lawsuit.
Lindstrom countered that the Haitians brought "a case of first impression that has never been in from of the court of the United States."
She contends that the UN trampled upon its obligation under the Convention on Privileges and Immunities to settle claims against its officials. The UN never established a claims commission for Haiti's cholera crisis, she noted.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Ellen Blain meanwhile said the case turns on whether the "UN Charter means what it unambiguously says."
The United States took no position on whether the UN breached its obligations to settle claims, Blain added.
International law experts and NGOs joined the Haitians in seeking to overcome the UN's immunity.
Kertch Conze, of the Haitian Lawyers Association, became particularly passionate and indignant as he emphasized the thousands of innocent victims claimed by the UN's alleged negligence.
"These people who have been infected, they did nothing wrong," he said.
Conze echoed the plaintiffs' arguments that the UN's alleged violation of one section of the treaty waived whatever immunity the other portion provided.
"If you breach the contract and you come to court and tell the judge, 'I have immunity,' then you come to court with unclean hands," Conze said.
Such a position also would be "patently unfair," he added.
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