Chicago Journal of International Law


Since the U.N.’s founding, its need for immunity from the jurisdiction of member states courts has been understood as necessary to achieve its purposes. Immunities, however, conflict with an individual’s right to a remedy and the law’s ordinary principles of responsibility for causing harm. This inherent conflict at the center of the immunity doctrine has evolved into a very public rift in the Haiti Cholera, Kosovo Lead Poisoning, and Mothers of Srebrenica cases against the U.N. In these three cases alleging mass torts by the U.N., the independence of the organization is perceived by some to have trumped the dignity of affected individuals. Due to a combination of factors, including the U.N.’s broad immunities, the limited jurisdiction rationae personae of courts over international organizations (IOs), and the nascent state of the U.N.’s own internal review mechanisms, not to mention continuing debate over whether human rights obligations bind the U.N. directly under international law, these cases of human tragedy have resulted in neither compensation by the U.N. to the victims nor access to domestic courts. This article argues that the threshold problem with the position that the U.N. is absolutely immune is that it severs ordinary legal principles: an organization is responsible for the harm it causes by its negligence. Absolute immunity also stands in contrast to the U.N.’s programmatic promotion of the Rule of Law and to the standards expected of member states. While partial immunity is justified under certain circumstances, the categorical assertion of absolute U.N. immunity does not survive an assessment of accountability, distributive justice, or economics. U.N. Member States should join the conversation about what immunities mean to the U.N. today given its contemporary mandate and impact on individuals. If they do not, there may be consequences for the U.N. that are disadvantageous for its future work.