UN must urgently find a better way to tackle peacekeepers accused of sex abuse
The UN expert report is in stark contrast with a Secretary General’s report earlier this year to the UN General Assembly on special measures for protection from sexual exploitation
Gen Babacar Gaye, the United Nations secretary general’s representative to the Central African Republic: The Senegalese diplomat “tendered his resignation at my request,” UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon told reporters. Photograph: Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images
In recent years, the UN has been dogged by allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation across a range of missions. The dismissal by the UN secretary-general of the head of the UN peacekeeping mission to the Central African Republic over allegations of misconduct by peacekeepers marks the first real evidence the organisation is prepared to take effective action to make personnel accountable. UN peacekeepers, including civilians and police, have been accused of serious sexual abuse and other violations of human rights, often involving young children.
Allegations of abuse in the Central African Republic became public knowledge earlier this year when a UN official became embroiled in a dispute with more senior UN officials after he leaked information about the conduct of French peacekeepers. An Amnesty International report has alleged rape and unlawful killing by peacekeepers.
In 2012, the UN secretary-general introduced a programme to combat sexual abuse. A key aspect was the appointment of an independent team of experts to assess how selected peacekeeping missions were addressing the issue. Earlier this year, a report was leaked that revealed areas of concern, including a lack of enforcement measures and the failure to provide robust assistance to survivors of exploitation.
The leaked report noted a strong sense in UN missions that exploitation is under-reported. Most disturbing, UN personnel in all the missions visited by the team could point to numerous suspected or visible cases of abuse not being recorded or investigated.
The expert report also found the UN does not know how serious the problem is because the official numbers mask what appears to be significant under-reporting. It cites reasons: from fear of alienating colleagues and being stigmatised as a whistleblower, to a culture of silence and lack of competence. There is also a sense of futility about reporting abuse because of long delays in the enforcement process and the rarity of remedial outcomes and survivor assistance. Monitoring and record-keeping was also found to be problematic.
The report identified a serious weakness in the secretary-general’s classification of allegations and described this as a misleading over-simplification. In reality, a large number of allegations are dismissed because the UN lacks the expertise, the trained personnel and the will to conduct full investigations. The report concluded this system “allows cases to be assumed false when they are in fact simply unsubstantiated due to lack of promptly or properly collected evidence”.
Overall, a culture of enforcement avoidance was noted, with managers feeling powerless to enforce anti-exploitation rules; a culture of silence around reporting; and extreme caution with respect to the rights of the accused with little attention being accorded to the rights of the survivor.
The assessment of the team of experts was in sharp contrast with that of the secretary general’s report. The ongoing impunity identified has been demoralising for the many UN personnel committed to a zero-tolerance policy. The treatment by the UN of the official at the centre of the leaking controversy, whose only concern was stopping the violations as soon as possible, was shameful. It distracted from the real issue, the survivors of abuse and how to prevent it. It seems a reluctant UN has been forced to take action. A more transparent and effective disciplinary system at national and UN level that includes naming and shaming those found guilty is urgently needed. The priority must be the needs of survivors, especially the many children exploited by those charged with their protection.
Prof Ray Murphy of the Irish Centre for Human Rights, school of law, NUI Galway, is director of the masters programme on peace operations, humanitarian law and conflict at NUI Galway