The United Nations is no stranger to scandal.

There are the wayward peacekeeping troops who take advantage of the vulnerable people they are supposed to be protecting and commit rape and sexual abuse. Think: Haiti, and the Democratic Republic of  Congo.

Then there’s corruption, as happened in the Oil-for-Food Programme. While that programme was enacted in 1995 to stop Iraqi children from starving under international sanctions, it is better known for lining the pockets of UN officials.

And, finally, there are times when the UN, plain and simply, messes up. Like when the UN’s gross negligence apparently caused a cholera epidemic to sweep through Haiti starting in 2010. 

That is the allegation of two legal organisations who have filed a complaint seeking damages on the part of more than 5,000 Haitians who suffered sickness or losses.

Nepalese peacekeepers

The lawsuit reflects what many Haitians believe and what several scientific studies support - that  Nepalese peacekeepers who were not effectively screened for the disease imported it to the country and allowed it to spread through their improper disposal of sewage.

The recurring issue in all of these scandals is the inability to hold the UN accountable for its crimes and misdeeds. As the only organisation with the power to set international law, the UN is also, in fact, above the very laws it claims to represent.

It’s not supposed to be that way. True, the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations, signed in 1946, grants immunity from prosecution for UN employees in their host country. But it also highlights the importance of accountability for the UN, as a bulwark for human rights and the rule of law.

In criminal cases, it falls to the country of the accused UN employee to pursue charges.

Review and reimbursement

When it comes to civil claims, the UN tends to handle them at the local level. A UN helicopter blew the roof off of your grass hut? A UN truck ran over your cow? There’s a procedure for reviewing your claim and reimbursing you.

But some complaints are so large, and so expensive, they get sent back to the legal department at UN headquarters in New York. And the bigger the complaint, the more likely it is to disappear in the ether above the thirty-eighth floor of the Secretariat Building.

Here’s another example. Since 2005, 143 displaced Roma have been going after the UN Mission in Kosovo for failing to relocate them from UN-administered land that was known to contain poisonous lead.

The case has been tossed out of two European courts, even though in 2009 the Kosovo Human Rights Advisory Commission determined the admissibility of  the complainants’ legal petition, which also charges gross negligence.

In Haiti, cholera victims have called on the UN to establish a “standing claims commission” to hear their case.

Such a commission is required under the Status of Forces Agreement the UN signs with every country where it sends peacekeepers.

And yet the UN cannot point to a single time in its 60 year history that such a commission has been formed.

The UN has been “studying” the Haitian complaint for nearly five months.

Government's stand

One problem, according to legal experts, is that the Haitian government refuses to back the claim of its citizens.

"We are not focused on blaming people here. We are focused on solving the situation," President Michel Martelly said when asked about the complaint recently.

Haiti's government depends largely on the UN for donations and the provision of many basic civil services. Given its dependence, Martelly’s reluctance to press the UN is perhaps not surprising. Nor is the fact that Haiti has been home to so many UN scandals.

That is also precisely why advocates say it is so important to give victims their day in court. They are asking the UN not only to pay damages to victims, but also apologise and help fix the country’s woefully inept water sanitation system.

"They promote human rights," explained Mario Joseph, a Haitian lawyer representing the victims, "[yet] they deny the rights of the Haitian people."

Benedict Moran contributed to this blog