Appalled by horrific descriptions of sexual abuse by UN peacekeeping forces, the organisation’s secretary general spoke passionately about the need to stop such crimes in its ranks.
“We cannot rest,” he said, “until we have rooted out all such practices. And we must make sure that those involved are held fully accountable.”
These words sound very much like the ones spoken by the UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon last week in response to reports of sexual abuse by peacekeepers in Central African Republic (CAR).
But they were spoken more than a decade ago. It was a previous secretary general, Kofi Annan, who first pledged to eliminate the scourge of sexual abuse from the UN.
Annan, to his credit, did more than just deplore the problem: he announced a zero-tolerance policy, commissioned a seminal report on the issue, and helped the UN to institute several reforms.
Yet the sex abuse scandals have continued. Earlier this month, Amnesty International found credible evidence that a UN peacekeeper in CAR sexually assaulted a 12-year-old girl during a 2am search of her family’s home. The girl says he dragged her out to a secluded part of the courtyard, slapped her when she began to cry, tore her clothing, and raped her. Her claims are supported by medical evidence.
The girl says [the UN peacekeeper] dragged her out to a secluded part of the courtyard, slapped her when she began to cry, tore her clothing, and raped her.Joanne Mariner
On Wednesday, the UN revealed more allegations of abuse of girls or young women by peacekeepers in CAR.
In response to the earlier revelations, Ban sacked the head of the peacekeeping mission in the country and called an emergency meeting of the UN security council to address the matter.
Heads do not often roll at the UN. The public spectacle of one of their own being forced to resign must have been edifying for UN peacekeeping chiefs elsewhere. At a minimum, it should encourage increased vigilance of the sexual abuse problem.
Sadly, it has become crystal clear over the past two decades that CAR is not the only country where sexual crimes have been carried out by the very individuals charged with protecting the local population from harm. The list of countries in which cases of sexual abuse and exploitation by UN peacekeepers have been reported is now quite long, with abuse apparently systemic in some.
…sexual crimes have been carried out by the very individuals charged with protecting the local population from harm. The list of countries in which cases of sexual abuse and exploitation by UN peacekeepers have been reported is now quite long, with abuse apparently systemic in some.Joanne Mariner
In Haiti, for example, a recent study (pdf) found that members of the UN peacekeeping mission engaged in “transactional sex” with at least 229 women in exchange for necessities like food and medication. The same study said that between 2008 and 2013, nearly 500 allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse had been made against UN peacekeeping personnel, one-third of which involved minors.
In his resignation letter, the head of the UN mission in CAR alluded to the possibility that sexual abuse by peacekeeping forces might be a “systemic problem” requiring a structural response. This is certainly the case.
At the root of the problem is impunity: almost none of those suspected of criminal responsibility for crimes of sexual violence face a real threat of criminal prosecution for their crimes. At the UN, many cases do not receive a thorough and immediate investigation. But even if a UN inquiry finds a suspect responsible for rape, there are almost no consequences.
Typically, the alleged perpetrator is sent back home and the case ends there. Because of questionable rules regarding peacekeeper immunity, the onus is generally on the troop-contributing country to undertake prosecutions. They rarely, if ever, do so.
India was recently in the news for punishing a few of its soldiers for sexual abuses that took place in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but those were military disciplinary , not criminal sanctions. And the number of cases bore no relation to the magnitude of the incidents.
A much more aggressive approach to justice for such crimes is needed. Concrete and effective preventive measures must be instituted. Accountability must be made real and public, not just theoretical. Countries need to feel meaningful pressure to bring sexual abuse cases before their civilian courts; if they fail to do so, they need to be publicly outed. There has to be follow-up and transparency.
Because accountability starts from within, the UN should take a critical look at its own failures in dealing with sexual abuse.Joanne Mariner
Because accountability starts from within, the UN should take a critical look at its own failures in dealing with sexual abuse. It has already taken a step in that direction by setting up a review panel to examine its handling of allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse in CAR. Either that panel’s mandate and powers should be expanded, or its work should be followed by a more comprehensive, investigative assessment of the UN’s response to sexual exploitation and abuse allegations.
As Ban has said, “enough is enough”. After years of discussion, promises and strategies, the UN must solve the problem of sexual abuse by peacekeepers, once and for all.
Note: This piece originally appeared in The Guardian.