UN Peacekeepers: Are the Protectors a Threat to Women and Children? (Part II)

Part I introduced the facts surrounding the long running sexual abuse and exploitation inflicted on women and children by peacekeeping troops in various countries where they are stationed on missions. The following matters were touched upon: structural issues in the UN peacekeeping program that allows for this behavior to continue, the lack of accountability of troops and support staff who perpetrate these crimes. Part II shall expand on accountability and the way forward.

Accountability

As matters stand, under an agreement between the UN and member states, countries have the sole responsibility to prosecute their troops who are taking part in peacekeeping missions. If countries do not take action the UN can intervene, but it only has power to repatriate troops and suspend payments to countries that the accused troops are from. In order to assess the effectiveness of this system one needs to only look at the response of countries and the UN, to allegations in the last year. There were more than 50 cases of sexual abuse at the hands of UN supported field personnel, although the actual number of cases is said to be much higher. First there are instances where the UN failed to act. It became evident from documents leaked in May 2015, that UN high-level staff was aware of abuses by peacekeeping soldiers in the Central African Republic that took place in 2014 yet, failed to act. There are also situations where the UN took action; however, the perpetrators were not truly held accountable.

An NGO called Aids Free World revealed on September 18, 2015 that the UN investigated and cleared 4 peacekeepers accused of rape and assault, including the assault of a child, without passing the cases to national authorities of the home countries of the accused. Instead the investigations were carried out by the Office of Internal Oversight Services, an internal UN body. The decision was made internally based on the credibility of the allegations and whether or not they should be passed to the criminal authorities in the suspects’ home countries. Once the suspects were cleared they were free to go back to work. Aids Free World also revealed that 4 out of a total of 12 cases were referred to the criminal authorities in the suspects’ home countries by the UN. In addition, 2 of the cases passed on to national authorities were later dropped, and another 2 were under review.

There are also issues of lack of transparency and the creation of a double standard. The UN informs civilians that they should notify UN directly of any abuse rather than going through local law enforcement. However, when the UN is notified of any abuse, the system provides the accused with immunity. The UN may not act upon allegations since it reserves the right to assess the credibility of each allegation. This lack of transparency and double standard discourages victims from reporting incidents of abuse.

These issues conflict drastically with the UN’s aim for “zero tolerance” for abuse and sexual violence perpetrated by UN troops, as recently declared by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. It is clear that for a zero tolerance policy to be effectively enforced, the UN must review its oversight of peacekeeping operations and reform its policies when it comes to accountability.

The way forward

There have been several reactions in the past few months in response to latest revelations about the abuse committed by troops. Ban Ki-Moon called for a meeting of the UN Security Council over the issue. There have also been several reviews underway. For example, in June 2015, an External Independent Review Panel examined the UN’s handling of the allegations of abuse and exploitation in the Central African Republic. Although this has been described as a step in the right direction, organizations such as Amnesty International have asked for the panel’s mandate to be broadened and to be followed by a more comprehensive review of the UN’s response to sexual exploitation and abuse allegations in general. Civil Society Organizations have also demanded that review panels have subpoena powers in order to strengthen the scope of the investigations. It has also been stressed that any inquiry must be truly external and independent with no members of UN staff being appointed. The top members of the Secretary General’s staff should be the subjects of investigation without any exclusion.

In terms of reforms to the accountability mechanisms, UN staff, police and experts on missions are currently covered by the 1946 Convention on Privileges and Immunities. A proposal dating back to 2008 for an international convention to punish those accused of sex crimes in UN operations overseas never got off the ground. However, given the recent events, and campaigns to stop sex crimes committed by UN support personnel in missions such as Code Blue, the proposal may be revived. It is clear that such a convention would be very positive, as it would bring coherence to an accountability mechanism that is unclear and ineffective. However there are several challenges in the way of getting such a convention off the ground. Developing countries, which provide most of the soldiers to UN peacekeeping forces, may reject it. This would require lobbying in order to explain how the Convention would be useful to them in providing a guide on how to monitor and prosecute troops.

There is also the greater challenge plaguing the UN because its bureaucracy responsible for implementing changes is dysfunctional, making it more difficult to achieve any substantial transformation in a short period. However, given the gravity of the situation, and the fact that such criminal activity has been perpetrated by troops representing the UN for so long without any effective repercussions necessitates that the utmost be done to overcome these challenges. The efforts for review and suggestions for a Convention are promising. Only time will tell if there will be any follow through.

About Seema Kawar

Seema is currently a trainee Lawyer in Jordan. She earned her Bachelor’s degree in Law in the UK and her Masters in Law in International Development Law and Human Rights from the University of Warwick in the UK. She has a deep interest in women’s rights and refugee rights issues and has volunteered a Sisterhood is Global Institute in Jordan, a local women’s rights organization, and as an assistant caseworker helping asylum seekers from various backgrounds in the UK. She is interested in learning more about the legal, social and political issues the hinder women’s rights and progress in the MENA region and contributing to improving the status of women in the MENA Region and other parts of the developing world.