ASIL 2017 Recap: Claims against the United Nations: From Within and Without

By: Loren Turner

At 9:00 a.m. Friday, April 14, 2017, during ASIL’s annual meeting, a panel of international law experts assembled to address the accountability of the United Nations in its peacekeeping operations (or, in practical terms, lack therof).  The topic is getting increasing attention in light of recent evidence that U.N. peacekeepers caused the cholera outbreak in Haiti and sexually-abused children and women during peacekeeping operations in Central Africa.

The panelists were: Simon Chesterman, Professor of Law at the National University of Singapore; Andreas Vaagt, with the United Nations Secretariat, and Patricia Galvao Teles, with the International Law Commission.  Alejandro Sousa, senior legal adviser to the U.N. General Assembly, moderated the discussion.

Professor Chesterfield unpacked the concept of accountability into two inquiries: (1) to whom is the United Nations accountable and (2) for what?  In short, the answers are: (1) unfortunately, no one – yet; and (2) violations of humanitarian law.

In 1952, when there were 60 countries that comprised the United Nations, a committee of the American Society of International Law (referenced here) questioned whether the U.N. was subject to the laws of war.  After all, the U.N. was not, itself, a party to the Geneva Conventions or any other treaties.  It was not until the Kosovo intervention in 1999 that it was decided yes, humanitarian law applies to U.N. peacekeeping operations because: (1) the U.N. is an independent actor – separate from member States – when it exercises peacekeeping functions under the U.N. Charter (2) customary law supports humanitarian intervention in certain situations and the laws of war thus apply to the actors performing the humanitarian intervention and (3) the U.N. increasingly exercises state-type activities, such as in Kosovo when it set up panels to prosecute criminals and freeze assets.

Yet, despite theoretical application of laws of war to U.N. peacekeeping operations, the practical reality is that the U.N., as an international organization, has absolute immunity.  Additionally, individual U.N. officials have immunity as well.  When the U.N. admitted its role in Haiti’s cholera epidemic, victims brought suit in U.S. federal court.  The Second Circuit dismissed the case for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, finding the U.N. was indeed immune under Section 2 of the Convention of the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations, which states “The United Nations, its property and assets wherever located and by whomsoever held, shall enjoy immunity from every form of legal process except insofar as in any particular case it has expressly waived its immunity…” So, victims in places where the U.N. operates, such as in Haiti, have no avenue to contest activities or hold the U.N. accountable.  The organization that is supposed to enforce the rule of law around the world is not itself accountable.

Mr. Vaagt spoke on behalf of the United Nations. He said enforceability of the rule of law related to personnel actions depends on member states. Once article V or VI of the U.N. Charter is invoked, the status of forces agreement (SOFA) between the U.N. and the host country applies.  Under the SOFA, the state(s) providing humanitarian personnel maintain exclusive jurisdiction of those individuals.  The concept of exclusive jurisdiction also applies to NATO forces going into NATO countries.  Once the U.N. refers a case to a state, it is up to the state to investigate and prosecute the offender.  General Assembly resolution 62/63 urged states to exercise that jurisdiction.  Yet, to date, despite approximately 100 case referrals, not a single state has pursued charges.  

As to the immunity of U.N. staff, only official high level U.N. officials have diplomatic immunity.  But, there are other U.N. employees who have functional immunity, which can be waived by the U.N. Secretary General.  Officially, the U.N. has a zero tolerance policy and Secretary-General Guterres recently released a strategy to end impunity for sexual exploitation and abuse system-wide.  It is too early to comment on the effect of that strategy. Regardless, unless waived by the Secretary-General, immunity stands.

Ms. Galvao Teles said that the issue of U.N. accountability is not a new one.  There are three strategies that have been raised to attempt a balance between immunity and impunity: (1) revise the 1946 Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations; (2) envision a convention on the jurisdictional immunities of international organizations; or (3) tackle the immunity question within the context of “settlement of international disputes” to which international organizations are parties.  In Ms. Galvao Teles’s opinion, none of these strategies is appropriate.  It is risky to revise agreements that already contain good law.  Given the current international political climate, the Secretary-General says he is happy to have what we have rather than risk getting less.  Maybe it is not the rules that need to change, but the implementation.  We could clarify when a waiver of immunity would be appropriate.  We could define better the phrase “private claim.” We could explore a sanctions-type system to handle claims rather than relying on judicial resolution.  All of these are better options than revising an established treaty.  As to the second idea of envisioning something new?  Not going to happen.  What would it add?  Again, it is probably an issue about new strategies of implementation rather than the creation of new rules.  The last idea, the topic of tackling the immunity question within the context of settlement of international disputes, was added at the sixty-eight session of the International Law Commission.  Ms. Galvao Teles thinks it is more likely that the International Law Commission would provide draft clauses to address the issue of immunity – not an entire convention.

[For more information about this program, read the official recap on ASIL Cables].

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s