Is the UN doing enough to stop peacekeeper abuse?
UN peacekeepers are sent to the most war-ravaged countries on Earth, ostensibly to help them transition to peace.
But some stand accused of committing crimes against the very people they are supposed to protect.
According to a recent investigation by the Associated Press (AP), between 2004 and 2016, the United Nations received almost 2,000 allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse against its peacekeepers.
The UN says it has a zero tolerance policy on sexual exploitation and abuse, but survivors, activists, lawyers and human rights organisations say such crimes have been allowed to continue with impunity.
Through conversations with UN peacekeepers and officials, gender experts, academics, researchers and activists, as well as through an investigation of UN data, in this four-part series, we try to navigate these competing accounts to answer the question: How did some peacekeepers become predators?
In the fourth and final part, we ask if the UN is doing enough to stop its peacekeepers committing abuses.
How are allegations investigated?
In May 2005, the UN Security Council held a public meeting about sexual exploitation and abuse in peacekeeping. It was the first meeting of its kind at the UN. The council condemned “all acts of sexual abuse and exploitation committed by peacekeepers and reiterated the importance of ensuring that they were properly investigated and appropriately punished”.
In 2007, the UN created the Conduct and Discipline Unit (CDU) to deal with all types of misconduct, including sexual exploitation and abuse.
Allegations are reported to the CDU and Conduct and Discipline Teams (CDT) in the field. The CDT then assesses the allegations and refers them to an investigative arm of the field mission.
If the case involves a military officer, it is referred to the troop-contributing country for investigation. If it involves a civilian member of the UN, the UN is tasked with investigating it.
Crucially, a referral is supposed to activate support services, like psychosocial support or medical services, for the survivor.
Nicola Dahrendorf, the chief coordinator of the CDT at MINUSCA, the UN mission in the Central African Republic, says that if an allegation involves a member of the military contingent, the team “will inform the troop-contributing state concerned within 72 hours and request their appointment of a National Investigation Officer (NIO) within five to 10 days, depending on the gravity of the allegation”.
Atul Khare, the undersecretary-general for the UN Department of Field Support, says he believes the UN is “advancing in the right direction” and that it has displayed “greater transparency” over how allegations are investigated.
But activists, like Paula Donovan, codirector of the New York-based NGO Aids Free World, express concern that, by requiring the UN or troop-contributing countries to investigate cases against their own personnel, the process is fraught with conflicts of interest. As there is no independent body monitoring the process, there can be no way of knowing if it is honest and fair, Donovan explains.
According to Beatrice Lindstrom, a lawyer with the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), a New York-based NGO that helps survivors of human rights violations pursue cases in national and international courts, if a case does make it to court the survivors aren’t always represented as the UN does not provide them with legal counsel.
“Legal proceedings are rarely instituted. This is partly due to the fact that most survivors do not have access to representation to advise them on how to launch a claim,” says Lindstrom.
If it is decided at the investigation stage, either by the UN or the troop-contributing country, that there is insufficient evidence to pursue a case, Lindstrom says there is no way for survivors to challenge that decision.
But Olivier Salgado, the spokesperson for the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations, disputes this, and says that if new information is presented, “We will analyse it and re-open an investigation.”
“Our Conduct and Discipline Unit at headquarters and teams in the field have put in place a series of tools for victims or complainants to come forth at any time, whether it is by phone, email, in person or through confidential community-based complaint mechanisms established in host communities in partnership with local stakeholders,” he says.
But an internal UN report published in June 2017 showed that an audit of the conduct and discipline function of the UN Mission in CAR, between September 2014 and October 2016, revealed that the mission’s systems to tackle sexual exploitation and abuse were in disarray.
The report by the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) found that the mission had yet to finalise a communications strategy geared towards reaching survivors of abuse and exploitation and that it had yet to implement a reliable mechanism for tracking compliance with training requirements. Around 57 percent of military personnel had not attended mandatory training on standards of conduct, it revealed.
“There was an unmitigated risk that mission personnel were not fully aware of the UN standards of conduct against sexual exploitation and abuse and did not conduct themselves accordingly,” the report stated.
Although Salgado told Al Jazeera that identifying mitigating factors and risks of misconduct “was something the UN missions do regularly”, the OIOS report on the UN Mission in CAR found that it had carried out risk assessments at only 19 of the 37 UN bases in the country.
It also found that MINUSCA did not have a viable tracking system for solving long-pending cases.
According to the UN’s data, many cases across all UN missions remain “pending”.
Since 2015, there have been 209 accusations across all UN peacekeeping missions. These involve 346 peacekeepers, both military and civilian personnel, and 388 survivors, including 171 children. According to UN data that tracks the status of allegations for each mission, 110 allegations across all missions remain unresolved since 2015.
In one “pending” case, 19 soldiers from Gabon are alleged to have raped 67 people, including 36 children between 2014 and 2015 in the Central African Republic.
In some of the cases that have been acted upon, punitive action has been minimal.
In one case, the UN found that there was sufficient evidence that a Cameroonian police officer had engaged in at least one incident of sexual exploitation in Haiti in 2009. In 2015, he was repatriated, but Cameroon has yet to conclude the case and he has not been jailed.
In another, a soldier from the Congo Republic who was found guilty of “exploitative sexual relations” was repatriated by the UN and jailed by his government for 15 days.
A Senegalese soldier found guilty of raping a child in the Ivory Coast in August 2016, was repatriated and has yet to be prosecuted in his home country.
Responding to these numbers, M Atul Khare, under-secretary general for the United Nations Department of Field Support, told Al Jazeera that the UN was “well aware of the shortcomings in the system”.
But, he added, “Our partnership with member states, to hold perpetrators accountable in cases involving military personnel, is seeing results.”
The UN’s Salgado told Al Jazeera: “Over the last two years, we have seen an increase in the response rate by member states, up to 92 percent. We have also seen in the last two years, troop-contributing countries imposing harsher punishments as national laws allow.”
The governments of Senegal, the Congo Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Cameroon did not reply to repeated requests for comment on these cases.
In response to questions about the ongoing case of eight Uruguayan peacekeepers accused of sexually exploiting two women in the Democratic Republic of Congo in March 2017, Ambassador Elbio Rosselli, the permanent representative of Uruguay to the UN, told Al Jazeera that his government “has been moving tirelessly in this field by taking several measures to tackle sexual exploitation and abuse” and that “tackling SEA [sexual exploitation and abuse] was a high priority” for his government.
Roselli said that previous cases had usually been concluded within two to three months.
The UN has not been forthcoming, and there is a ‘whatever happens in Africa, stays in Africa’ approach; I am constantly torn between the scourge and the impression that the majority are not doing this
Marsha Henry, LSE
But even then questions remain over whether justice was served.
In 2011, five Uruguayan peacekeepers gang-raped a Haitian teenager and recorded the attack on their phones. Although the Uruguayan president apologised for the incident following a public outcry, when the case went to court, four out of the five soldiers were found guilty of “private violence” instead of rape. They were subsequently sentenced to two years and one month in prison.
The fifth soldier was acquitted.
So, can it be stopped?
On March 9, 2017, the UN secretary-general, Antonio Guterres, released a “Special Measures” report that it described as a “new approach to combat sexual exploitation and abuse”.
But Aids Free World, which has repeatedly urged the creation of an independent body responsible for investigating crimes committed by the UN, argues that to allow the UN to continue policing itself will lead nowhere.
When asked if the UN is able to investigate itself, Salgado told Al Jazeera that “this is a question for the member states who make up the rules of the General Assembly.”
Meanwhile, researcher and academic Marsha Henry from the Gender Institute at the UK’s London School of Economics, says she struggles to reconcile the reports of everyday abuse with the fact that many peacekeepers try to make life better for the host population.
“The UN has not been forthcoming, and there is a ‘whatever happens in Africa, stays in Africa’ approach; I am constantly torn between the scourge and the impression that the majority are not doing this.”
But ultimately, Donovan says, it comes down to accountability.
UN troops need to know that they will be held accountable for their actions, she says. “These are the rules, the recommendations. If you commit a crime, you will be prosecuted. And you will go to jail. This is the only way.”