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Victims of Peace – The UN, abuse allegations and a culture of impunity

September 8th, 2015

By Darja Schildknecht – Associate Fellow

In the preamble of the Charter of the United Nations, the UN states one of its core aims to be “to unite [our] strength to maintain international peace and security”. Yet, the UN, and particularly UN peacekeeping forces, has a history of abusing its power in conflict situations. The most recent incident of peacekeepers sexually abusing children in the Central African Republic (CAR) has had, so far, no consequences for the perpetrators. The UN, as an organisation of international peace and security, is losing its credibility not only in the eyes of national governments but also in those of the people who are in need of protection. The million dollar question here is what needs to be done to end this situation of impunity for UN peacekeepers and how these atrocities can be addressed in a way to prevent their recurrences.

Listed as one of the least developed countries in the world, the CAR has been unstable since its independence from France in 1960. As a consequence of an outbreak of violence three years ago, the UN peacebuilding mission BINUCA was replaced by the UN stabilisation mission MINUSCA in 2014. With this change from peacebuilding to peacekeeping, the key mandate of the mission was set to be the protection of civilians. Secondary goals of the mission include support for the transition process to peace, facilitation of humanitarian assistance, and the promotion and protection of human rights.

Despite this noble mandate, the first allegations against the 10,000-strong UN force, and particularly against French soldiers, became public in April this year. Tragically, the allegation that French soldiers sexually abused children in their capacity as peacekeepers was known to the UN for almost one year before it became public knowledge. Anders Kompass, at the time director of field operations based in Geneva, passed the confidential document concerning the abuse to French authorities after the obvious failure of the UN to initiate measures to address the serious problem. But the heroic move by Kompass was not perceived as such by the UN as he was promptly asked to resign, and after his refusal to do so was suspended and investigated.

The reaction by the UN seems to reveal the true preferences of the organisation – instead of taking swift measures to stop the abuses, officials started an investigation against the person who leaked the report. The UN is thus protecting its reputation and their own people, instead of protecting the people it is meant to defend.

Unfortunately, the reports of sexual violence and exploitation by UN peacekeepers in the CAR continue unabated. Only in August, allegations were made that a girl under the age of 16 was raped by a Moroccan peacekeeper and according to Amnesty International, a twelve-year-old girl was also raped and two civilians were indiscriminately killed. Most recently, three young females have apparently been victims of rape by members of a MINUSCA military contingent.

In response to the most recent reports of atrocities, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon addressed the public on 12 August: “I cannot put into words how anguished, angered and ashamed I am by recurrent reports over the years of sexual exploitation and abuse by UN forces. […] When the United Nations deploys peacekeepers, we do so to protect the world’s most vulnerable people in the world’s most desperate places. I will not tolerate any action that causes people to replace trust with fear. […] I will reiterate that leaders must report allegations immediately, investigate thoroughly and act decisively. Failure to do so will have clear consequences.”

Although Anders Kompass did what – according to common sense – he should have done in such a situation, namely “act decisively”, he is now suspended and being investigated. It would, therefore, seem to be apparent that the UN lacks ideas regarding how to implement this zero-tolerance policy on sexual abuse and exploitation. In June, the UN Secretary General set up an independent review panel to examine the UN’s handling of allegations of sex exploitation. He also called on the Security Council to discuss the matter and hold a videoconference with the force commanders of all peacekeeping operations. This was followed by a UN internal investigation, with experts being sent to the CAR. However, the only truly hands-on measure so far has been to force the resignation of the peacekeeping chief of MINUSCA, Senegalese Army General Babacar Gaye. Still, the resignation and the other measures introduced have little to do with the appropriate accountability needed right now.

This situation could be more forgivable if the problem of peacekeepers convoluted in serious crimes was new to the UN. Sadly, it is not. Peacekeepers have been known to abuse their power against the ones who are in need of protection since the 1990s. Cases range from torture to sexual abuse to human trafficking to killing and have been reported in Mali, Bosnia, Kosovo, Mozambique, Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Burundi, the DRC, Haiti, South Sudan and the CAR amongst others. The (involuntarily) published report of May 2015 records 480 allegations of abuse between 2008 and 2013 alone.

Now, the important question is why the UN is struggling so much to adopt appropriate measures and policies. One possible answer: Jurisdiction. The UN itself lacks the power to introduce punitive action for the peacekeeping troops and personnel who have abused their capacity in performing the UN mandate. Under current arrangements, agreements between the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (UNDPKO), troop-contributing countries and the host state mean that the troop-contributing country has the sole jurisdiction to investigate the allegations and to hold the perpetrators accountable. But there is no legally binding clause for the state in question to actually do so.

Interestingly, the top troop-contributing countries are largely developing states, whereas the more developed countries generally contribute to the peacekeeping missions through funds. Necessary capacities (e.g. legal, technical, financial) to hold the troops accountable may, therefore, be unavailable/inexistent. Sadly, however, history has shown that even the wealthy troop-contributing countries have failed to introduce strong penalties for misconducts in their UN troops.

Having acknowledged that there are indeed some difficulties in addressing the abuse exerted by UN peacekeepers, there is certainly a better way of approaching the problem than has been demonstrated so far. Considering that the issue is known to have persisted for over twenty years now, the failure of the UN to create effective measures is even more evident and disillusioning.

The UN urgently needs to reform peacekeeping to restore accountability in its missions, and so to fulfil the core idea of protecting civilians. This article provides four suggestions on how to make the system more accountable.

Number 1: Establish a new mandate for troop-contributing countries and ensure that perpetrators are held accountable for abuse

As mentioned above, one of the biggest concerns is jurisdiction. One important step would be to change this jurisdiction from only troop-contributing countries to having a joint-jurisdiction with the host nations. The UN, by necessity, needs to take up the role of actively referring the cases of abuse to the competent criminal justice system in jurisdiction.

If this seems a little bit far-fetched, there are certainly more things that the UN could do within the given framework of jurisdiction. Most importantly, the UN needs to exercise pressure on member states to conduct investigations and to proceed with the legal measures in cases of abuses. One way of doing this is through “naming and shaming”. The annual report on sexual misconduct to the General Assembly should include country-specific information publicly disclosing the numbers of victims and perpetrators broken down by nationality. However, the big obstacle here seems to be that the UN does not want to provide a disincentive for countries to provide troops and therefore shies away from reprimanding the countries too extensively.

Number 2: More accountability through whistleblower protection

How the UN dealt with Anders Kompass, a UN employee who acted to stop the abuse of children, is a clear statement by itself. As the case has shown, there is little commitment to protect whistleblowers[1], but rather to act in a highly politicised manner. Instead of focusing on holding the perpetrators accountable, and more importantly, on directing all measures to prevent further abuses, the UN decided to take its first measure against a person who committed a breach of protocol. Again, this is not a one-off mistake by the UN, but has been evident throughout its history (see case of James Wasserstorm and UN corruption in Kosovo).

It is indeed understandable that the UN is upset about such breaches, as it (further) delegitimises the organisation as unaccountable and non-functioning. But the given political reaction seems to be losing sight of the actual UN mandate. Article 1 of the UN Charter says: “The Purposes of the United Nations are: 1. To maintain international peace and security, and to that end: to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace, and to bring about by peaceful means, and in conformity with the principles of justice and international law, adjustment or settlement of international disputes or situations which might lead to a breach of the peace.”

To ensure this exact mandate, it is important for the UN to set up appropriate whistleblower protection. This would significantly encourage the reporting of unnoticed UN abuses by its members, therefore ensuring more accountability. In an open letter to the Secretary-General this year, signatories called for an improved protection system for whistleblowers who seek justice and transparency through exposing abuse by UN staff, peacekeepers and foreign troops. It is necessary to provide them – if they act in good faith – with protection against legal, administrative or employment-related sanctions. Yet, the topic of whistleblowing needs go beyond simple protection, but should lead to an understanding of silence as an act of complicity with the abuse and its perpetrators.

Number 3: Reform the institutional culture and refocus on the UN mandate of maintaining international peace and security. 

Looking at the above mentioned, it seems that the UN has lost sight of its actual purpose. As explained under suggestion Number 1, the UN seems more focused on getting troops for peacekeeping rather than actually holding these troops accountable through putting pressure on the national governments. Moreover, as the second reform suggestion implies, it currently seems that it is more important for the UN to hold up its reputation and follow procedural rules than to tackle abuses carried out by the very organisation that should offer protection. For an outsider, these preferences seem to be skewed in terms of the actual mandate, as it should be more important to have accountable UN peacekeeping missions, to stop impunity and to focus on prevention of further abuse.

According to a Foreign Policy report, this situation within the UN is the result of two pillars of the UN human rights establishment, which are standing against each other. Madeleine Rees, Women’s International League for Peace & Freedom Secretary General, takes this argument further in claiming that the two different discourses are located in the very political dialogue of the UN. Whereas one school represents the politicisation of human rights, the second school (the one Kompass would belong to) prioritises human rights within politics. Unfortunately, it appears as if the first school of thought has overtaken the UN and its practices, where officials see human rights as a bargain to achieve in order to negotiate wider political goals. This abandoning of principles is a 180-degree turn on the UN mandate, which is meant to be about commitment to human rights and maintaining international peace and security. The UN now necessarily needs to recognise that compromising on human rights is not the way forward, but rather leads to more de-legitimisation and ineffectiveness of the UN in fighting against the innumerable injustices of this world.

Number 4: Focus on prevention through effective measures such as pre-deployment training.

Whereas the enforcement and accountability measures are of crucial importance, it is necessary to think about how to effectively prevent further misconduct. In 2007, the UN formally established the Conduct and Discipline Unit (CDU), which is intended to strengthen the accountability within peacekeeping missions. This unit specifically focuses on prevention as one measure of its strategy to eliminate misconducts and sexual exploitations by peacekeepers. Moreover, since 2005, training on preventing sexual exploitation and abuse has been mandatory for all personnel upon arrival in a peacekeeping mission. Pre-deployment training for all international civilian staff is conducted by the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations, while troop-contributing countries are responsible for providing mandatory pre-deployment training for military and police personnel. But despite these measures of mandatory pre-deployment training, the huge number of recent allegations of misconducts in peacekeeping missions portrays these actions as utterly ineffective.

UN peacekeeping missions are at a historic high in terms of deployment, with 106,000 military and police units and 19,000 civilian staff around the world. Peacekeepers come from more than 120 countries and bring with them their cultures, attitudes, and experiences to the mission. Here, the UN needs to enforce an institutional change within its organisation, to further strengthen the prevention aspect through pre-deployment training. This would mean a more extensive training in the pre-deployment phase as well as continued training and monitoring throughout the deployment. Moreover, for this to be effective, the UN should not only be in charge of training the UN civilian staff, but also train military and police personnel, which is currently left to the troop-contributing countries alone.

Today, sexual violence by peacekeepers is disturbingly familiar. Despite the rhetoric of a zero-tolerance policy, business as usual continues. It is of utmost importance now that the UN closes the gap between this zero-tolerance rhetoric and the actual practice of it, restoring its accountability as provider of peace and security. This means not just taking cosmetic actions, but rather introducing institutional change, which addresses the root cause of the problem and brings the UN back on top of their game in holding up the UN charter and its mandate to provide international peace and security.

[1] Interestingly, the UN refuses to call Kompass a whistleblower. It is unclear yet if Kompass will fight for this, as it could guarantee him more rights than currently granted.

About Darja Schildknecht

Darja Schildknecht is an Associate Fellow in the Security and Defence Team. Darja is currently working at the London School of Economics (LSE) as a Graduate Intern on the research project Above the Parapet – Women in Public Life. Previously, Darja has worked for the Permanent Mission of Liechtenstein to the UN, covering all Security Council issues.