October 23, 2014 / 7:35 PM / in 5 years

U.S. urges judge to dismiss cholera lawsuit against United Nations

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The U.S. government urged a federal judge on Thursday to dismiss a lawsuit filed against the United Nations by a group of Haitians who claim peacekeepers caused the devastating cholera epidemic that followed their country’s 2010 earthquake.

Ellen Blain, a lawyer for the Justice Department, told U.S. District Judge J. Paul Oetken in New York that the lawsuit, filed in 2013, should be thrown out because the United Nations is “absolutely immune” from such claims.

The cholera epidemic, the worst in recent history, has killed 8,500 people and sickened more than 700,000 since October 2010.

A panel appointed by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a 2011 report that did not conclusively determine how the disease, which had not been documented in Haiti in nearly a century before the outbreak, was introduced to the country. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the evidence strongly suggested U.N. peacekeepers were the source.

Attempts to serve the United Nations with the lawsuit have been rebuffed and the United Nations did not appear in Manhattan federal court on Thursday to answer the claims. The world organization has cited a 1946 convention on immunity.

Instead, the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s Office, which is part of the Justice Department, opposed the lawsuit on behalf of the United Nations’ host country, Blain said.

The lawsuit, one of several filed against the United Nations over the epidemic, came after the United Nations said it would not pay hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation requested by Haitian cholera victims.

Beatrice Lindstrom, a lawyer with the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti representing the plaintiffs, said the United Nations had refused to set up a process by which victims could file claims for compensation, as the convention requires. Instead, the United Nations summarily rejected thousands of claims without considering their merits.

As a result, the United Nations should be barred from asserting immunity, she added.

Blain said the language of the convention is clear.

“The United Nations is absolutely immune absent an express waiver,” she said.

A United Nations spokesman declined to comment on the case at a news briefing on Thursday.

Oetken did not say when he would rule.

Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by David Ingram and Andre Grenon

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