THE BLOG
06/10/2010 02:31 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Diplomatic Immunity -- Is the United Nations Above the Law?

The United Nations is an international organization committed to "faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, and in the equal rights of men and women...," according to its charter. So why then does the U.N. system allow its top officials to commit serious crimes and then hide behind diplomatic immunity?

Surely, human rights requires our institutions to treat criminal transgressions with the utmost seriousness. Yet a pattern of abuse and cover-up at the U.N. makes it clear this is not the case.

Now the U.S. Supreme Court has a chance to take up the issue of diplomatic immunity at the U.N.. Should the Court decide to review it, this case will test whether the current system of diplomatic immunity, where U.N. employees are free to break the law without repercussion, will be allowed to stand.

The petition with the Supreme Court was filed by workplace harassment victims Cynthia Brzak and Nasr Ishak, and it names then-U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers as culpable. The case, which eventually led to Lubbers' resignation, is a stark example of the impunity with which U.N. officials are allowed to operate - even when they violate the law and sexually victimize subordinates. By hearing the case, the Supreme Court has, for the first time, the opportunity to address the legal basis for U.N. immunity from American laws that has traditionally been limited to sovereign governments and their officials.

The case stems from an incident in December 2003 when Lubbers indecently assaulted UNHCR employee Brzak in his executive offices. The U.N.'s Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) investigated and confirmed the complaint and recommended to then-U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan that disciplinary action be taken against Lubbers. Annan ignored the recommendation. Lubbers resigned in 2005 after details of the complaint, including the OIOS report, were reported in the media.

The issue is far from an isolated case of sexual misconduct. Internal and external investigations have documented a systematic array of sexual misconduct that continues to go unaddressed at the U.N.

For example, a May, 2009 article in The Wall Street Journal titled "Sexual-harassment cases plague United Nations" uncovered widespread sexual misconduct that simply went unanswered. And because of the diplomatic immunity, victims have no recourse in local jurisdictions where the offenses take place.

"The United Nations, which aspires to protect human rights around the world, is struggling to deal with an embarrassing string of sexual-harassment complaints within its own ranks," the Journal article states. "Many U.N. workers who have made or faced accusations of sexual harassment say the current system for handling complaints is arbitrary, unfair and mired in bureaucracy."

The U.N. has been allowed to operate without accountability for far too long. The Supreme Court now has a chance to provide balance where there currently is none. It is not a question of whether diplomatic immunity should be upended -- but rather whether the culture of impunity for non-diplomats such as U.N. officials should end.

Edward P. Flaherty is Senior Partner at Schwab Flaherty & Associates, a Geneva-based law firm that represents the plaintiffs.