The United Nations as Good Samaritan and Accountability for Mass Torts

Guest lecture by Prof. Kristen Boon of Seton Hall University School of Law

Faculty of Law Communications - 25 March 2015

The United Nations was created in 1945 with the aim to "do good" but, as Professor Kristen Boon of Seton Hall ably explained in a lunchtime presentation for the Faculty of Law's Visiting Speakers Series, the UN's reliance on immunity from suit before domestic courts raises "right to a remedy" concerns for victims, including the many thousand who died in Haiti from a strain of cholera introduced by UN peacekeepers.

Recognizing that tensions exist for all organizations and individuals that have been granted immunities in law, Dr. Boon delivered a cogent argument for moving from a situation of absolute immunity for the UN to a more restricted immunity, taking into account its key functions and recognizing the significant expansion of its role since 1945. The United Nations is the central organization for the provision of humanitarian assistance to those in need, and provides this assistance at no charge to a receiving state.

Nevertheless, class actions have been instigated in US courts by the victims of cholera in Haiti, with the lawsuits serving to draw attention to a perceived need for greater UN accountability for UN actions. In addition to these cases, Dr. Boon's presentation also reflected on past attempts by victims to seek UN accountability for life-threatening lead contamination in Kosovo and the loss of life in a UN safe haven in Srebrenica during the Balkans conflict. Demonstrating an ability to think beyond the law, she also considered questions of legitimacy for public institutions perceived to be operating "above the law", as well as to questions of distributive justice and the costs borne by victims, and questions of law and economics and the role that immunities may play in incentivizing good behaviour. A discussion then followed, bringing tort law scholars and international law scholars together to explore further the distinctions between public acts and private acts, as well as alternative methods of dispute resolution.

Professor Kristen E. Boon is a Professor of Law at Seton Hall University School of Law in Newark, New Jersey, where she specializes in public international law and the law of international organizations. The University of Alberta's Faculty of Law extends its appreciation to Dr. Boon for a great talk and wishes her well on her return to New York.