BIRMINGHAM, England — Today is International Day of United Nations Peacekeeping — a day to acknowledge and celebrate the hundreds of thousands of men and women who work in UN peace missions across the world. Despite not being mentioned in the UN Charter, peacekeeping has become an essential mechanism for maintaining peace and security in many regions. Year upon year, the number of missions and their activities increase, with greater reliance on those men and women.
Whether it is peace-building, state-building, assisting with natural disasters or undertaking political and preventive work, as a general rule peacekeeping personnel deserve our praise and gratitude. They take on duties in the toughest places and show up to contend with the world’s most horrific crises; indeed, we cannot lose sight of outstanding tragedies, when peacekeepers attempted time and again to prevent civilian slaughter only to have their requests slapped down, as symbolized by the case of Rwanda, when the UN mission there requested more troops to fend off deadly doom but was rejected by American machinations.
Yet it is because peacekeepers do so much that they must continue to work to the highest standards, so we cannot also lose sight of the fact that the peacekeeping system desperately needs major changes.
The system’s most significant weakness is its lack of accountability for wrongdoings committed by peacekeepers. When peacekeeping does go awry, justice needs to be brought to those personnel — civilian and military — who commit criminal acts or human-rights abuses.
Corruption, sexual attacks, troop leaders indicted for genocide: these are some violations committed by UN peacekeepers in recent decades. The current legal frameworks, which include immunities, jurisdictional gaps and a lack of dispute resolution mechanisms, mean that the UN and its personnel are almost never held accountable for criminal actions or abuses. Outdated laws and legal infrastructure have neither evolved nor been adapted to contemporary society. The few attempts made by the UN to tinker around the edges of these laws have yielded little meaningful change.
Significant attention is, at long last, being turned to some of the more serious problems, and the peacekeeping chief, Hervé Ladsous, acknowledged the need to make changes in a press briefing on international peacekeeping day.
Groups outside the UN umbrella are already taking steps: The campaign Code Blue, launched earlier this month by AIDS-Free World, focuses on sexual violence committed by nonmilitary peacekeepers, who are protected by a shield of immunity. The Haiti cholera claims case, which is seeking redress for victims from the outbreak and continued fallout from the disease, draws attention to human-rights violations caused by systemic weaknesses within UN structures.
The next step to address the culture of impunity is to take a human-rights based approach to prevent abuses committed by peacekeeping personnel.
Human rights are one of the UN’s three pillars and are becoming increasingly mainstreamed in peacekeeping missions, though it is too early to say how well these commitments are being implemented. The UN and its member states are bound by international human-rights law, meaning that UN laws and practices must not violate its human-rights obligations. Yet those rights are being abused twice over, starting with the victims’ own suffering and the failure to hold accountable individuals who perpetrate the crimes.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s 2013 Human Rights Up Front plan seeks to foreground human rights in all UN activities. It should to be used to address the human-rights abuses caused by systemic relevant weaknesses in peacekeeping, and it should be used as the basis for developing a rights-based accountability framework and legal mechanisms.
The current accountability laws regarding peacekeepers are primarily contained in the 1946 Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the UN, the model Status of Forces Agreement and the Revised Model Memorandum of Understanding. The laws and practices do not take into account or uphold UN human-rights obligations.
But using Ban’s plan can enable the UN to adopt a framework based on rights-based interpretations of those accountability laws. Moreover, the Human Rights Up Front initiative can be used to emphasize political and diplomatic pressure points to ensure that the laws are carried out rather than remain abstract ideals.
Finally, legal mechanisms may need to be developed to provide the infrastructure necessary to ensure that accountability can be enhanced through courts or tribunals with jurisdiction over UN personnel. That possibility might seem like a tall order, particularly in such a large bureaucracy where nothing occurs quickly. Adopting a rights-based approach will not be easy. It will, however, ensure that individuals can no longer use immunities and jurisdictional gaps to shield peacekeepers who commit crimes and abuses.
Ultimately, such strong steps will strengthen the peacekeeping missions that the world relies on so heavily to protect the most vulnerable people across the globe.
This is an opinion essay.
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Dr. Rosa Freedman is a senior lecturer at Birmingham Law School, University of Birmingham, England. Her research focuses on the United Nations and human rights, particularly the political effects on international human-rights law. Dr. Freedman has published extensively on the UN Human Rights Council and is working on a British Academy-funded project on UN special procedures. Her other main research project is on UN peacekeeping and accountability for human-rights abuses committed during such operations.
Dr. Freedman has published two books, “Failing to Protect: The UN and the Politicization of Human Rights” and “The United Nations Human Rights Council: A Critique and Early Assessment.” Her academic articles have appeared in such journals as the European Journal of International Law and Human Rights Quarterly. She also writes for national and digital media, works closely with the UN and with state governments and sits on the advisory boards of international NGOs.
Dr. Freedman received a master of laws degree from University College London and a Ph.D. from Queen Mary University of London.