The following piece was published 14 November 2013, SBS World News Australia Radio.
By Ildi Amon
The world body charged with promoting human rights and international law has itself been accused of violating the ideals it serves to promote.
United Nations personnel have been linked to instances of war crimes, sex offences, and torture.
And accusations that the UN caused a cholera epidemic that's killed thousands of people in Haiti have again focused attention on the international organisation's legal immunity.
Ildi Amon reports.
Under the 1946 Convention on the UN's Privileges and Immunities, the world body has been able to avoid prosecution in national and international courts world-wide.
But some experts say the UN shouldn't have blanket legal immunity.
Professor of international law at the King's College in London, Guglielmo Verdirame, says the UN often fulfils government-like functions, and there should be mechanisms for accountability.
"The United Nations exercises a very wide range of functions from peacekeeping, to administration of territory to the delivery of humanitarian assistance and the exercise of these functions, particularly in situations of conflict, is far from easy. It's a very difficult task the UN has taken on and I think the organisation takes it very seriously and in many ways does its best. But it comes with the exercise of these powers that there will be risks to the liberty and the human rights of individuals."
The Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti - for example - says the UN was careless in its peacekeeping mission following the earthquake there in 2010.
It claims UN peacekeepers from Nepal brought cholera to Haiti and that a lack of proper sanitation at a UN camp resulted in a cholera outbreak that's killed 8,000 Haitians and made hundreds of thousands of others ill.
The non-government organisation is now taking action in a United States court and asking for compensation and an apology.
Director of the Institute Brian Concannon says the group is suing the UN because of its refusal to establish an alternative justice system.
"So this was the UN, because of its impunity problem, not taking the ordinary care that an individual or business would take just knowing that there would be consequences for polluting the environment. And that's why this case is important not only to make the UN to stand up to its principles about the rule of law but also for the UN to exercise reasonable care to prevent harm to populations that it serves."
Researcher at the Irish Centre for Human Rights at the National University of Ireland, Roisin Burke, says while most UN personnel do the right thing, sex crime allegations are not unusual.
She says it's more prevalent in chaotic operations or where ongoing conflicts or humanitarian disasters have reduced law enforcement.
"It's been particularly widespread in the Democratic Republic of the Congo where there's been numerous allegations of peacekeepers engaging in sexual interactions with both women who are engaging in prostitution for survival and also with children. There's been numerous cases across UN missions - most recently in Haiti there's been a cases of a gang rape of an 18 year old boy by five Uruguyan marines that were deployed on UN operation MINUSTAH in Haiti. And there was also last year two Pakistani police were prosecuted for the rape of a 14 year old Haitian boy while deployed in Haiti."
Roisin Burke says in the former Yugoslavia, there were even allegations of UN police assisting in the trafficking of women for prostitution.
And she says in Somalia in the 1990s, UN peacekeepers were responsible for violating human rights.
"A teenage boy was tortured to death and killed by UN troops and there was instances of children being hooded and tortured and tied up and made to drink salt water and eat pork."
The UN says it has a zero tolerance policy in relation to sex offences by its personnel, and has established better reporting mechanisms for victims.
But when it comes to UN peacekeepers, host countries always sign away their right to prosecute for wrongdoing.
This means that host countries have to rely on the home countries to prosecute any accused individuals.
King's College professor Guglielmo Verdirame says the actions of Dutch-UN troops in the Bosnian enclave of Srebrenica in 1995 brought this to worldwide attention.
"Srebrenica was a safe area which had been established under a Security Council mandate and thousands of civilians had found refuge there they were under the protection of the Dutch contingent of the UN peacekeeping mission in Bosnia. And when the Serb forces arrived the Dutch peacekeepers essentially gave up without even trying to defend the civilians and the result has been described in various investigations and judicial decisions as an act of genocide."
This year the Dutch Supreme Court ruled The Netherlands government is legally responsible for some of the civilian deaths that occurred in Srebrenica, and should pay compensation to their families.
Lawyer for the victims' families Liesbeth Zegveld says the landmark ruling has implications for other UN peacekeepers.
"It's legally very important because for the first time there has been a decision on the division of responsibility between the UN and member states during a peacekeeping operation. The court held that also member states can be held responsible in peacekeeping operations and not just the UN. And we all know that the UN has immunity in court so that means that finally there seems to be a remedy for victims."
International law professor at the Seton Hall Law School in the United States, Kristen Boon, also believes it's time to look at the UN's legal immunity.
She says while the UN frequently investigates relatively minor matters involving its personnel, like traffic accidents, it has never established a review tribunal for serious accusations against peacekeepers.
However, Professor Boon points out that the UN does sometimes commission independent reports into allegations made about its operations.
And she says changes may result from a forthcoming report into the final stages of the civil war in Sri Lanka in 2009, when the UN was accused of failing to do enough to protect civilians when thousands were reportedly killed.
"It's possible the UN will decide to go to a more concrete human rights direction after the UN responds to this report but that is not out yet but many are predicting this may actually signal a turning point in terms of how the UN decides to respond to these kinds of things in the future."
King's College professor Guglielmo Verdirame says the UN also has the option of waiving its immunity but it has only done so in rare cases, for example, when UN officials have been accused of corruption.
But Professor Verdirame says national courts might become more reluctant to leave the UN's absolute immunity untouched.
"I think absolute immunity is problematic for a state or for an organisation because it clashes with an idea of justice and ideas of human rights that are quite deep-seated the idea that there should be an organisation that is above the law is very problematic."
The group bringing the action for cholera victims in Haiti has previously asked for compensation worth billions of dollars.
But Professor Verdirame says even if it's legal action is successful, monetary compensation is unlikely.
"I just don't see any court really accepting enforcement measures against assets of the United Nations. So in practice no one will pay. The obligation would be an obligation for the organisation as a whole but the figure is two billion there certainly wouldn't be enough money in the budget of the UN so there would have to be a special contribution."