It has been almost a year since a sweeping assessment of United Nations peacekeeping operations by experts recommended significant changes from top to bottom: a reformed hierarchy in New York and greater coordination and discipline among military contingents in ever-more dangerous missions around the world. Few of their substantive ideas have been adopted.
As outrage mounts over reports of the exploitation and sexual abuse of children by soldiers over the last two years in the Central African Republic and its neighborhood, it is clear that there are still many loose ends needing attention. All indications suggest that the problem is getting worse globally or it is occurring at an undiminished level annually.
“We can stop admiring the problem, and begin to pursue vigorously solutions to this problem,” said Jane Holl Lute, the plain-speaking American whom Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed as his special coordinator on improving UN responses to abuse, at a briefing for the UN General Assembly on May 13. “No one has been standing still.”
Yet Lute acknowledged that the job required significant mind-set changes in the field, where she found “pockets of resistance.”
In December 2015, a subsequent, separate independent report sharply focused on the abuses in the Central African Republic revealed that a stunning lack of communication and cooperation within the organization ranked high among the failure to deliver justice and protect the human rights of the people the UN was sent to save.
That report described the UN’s response to sexual abuses of children as bungled and bureaucratic, amounting to a “gross institutional failure.” Though the soldiers initially involved in the abuses were French troops, not formally UN peacekeepers, their presence in the crisis-wracked country had been authorized by the UN, and the organization’s mission there was responsible for reporting and acting on allegations of misconduct by anyone connected with the UN.
Instead, UN officials all the way to the top squabbled over who leaked the bad news regarding the abuse, and the welfare of victims was never a priority.
In February 2016, Secretary-General Ban, who fired the Senegalese general leading the mission in the Central African Republic in August 2015 and produced several preliminary statements and reports over the past year, provided disturbing new data on the global situation in a report to the General Assembly. The report found that scores of allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation across the UN system had been registered in 2015 alone, up nearly 25 percent over the previous year.
Thirty of the allegations were outside peacekeeping, occurring in UN agencies and other civilian programs, and 69 were directly related to peacekeeping missions. (Some of the allegations were later found not to be true and some were still being investigated at the time of the report.)
By contrast, in 2003, the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations reported that it had investigated allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse against only 19 military personnel and five UN staff members, although this was widely assumed to be a gross undercount. After new complaint procedures were hastily introduced, the number of allegations in 2004 jumped to 72, of which 68 were filed against soldiers and four against civilian UN staff. Ban has only about seven months left in office, and no one watching this issue closely would predict that the situation will or can change dramatically in that time.
The Department of Peacekeeping Operations, led by Hervé Ladsous, a French diplomat and security expert, presides over 123,053 people in 16 peacekeeping operations, as of March 31, 2016. Of the personnel, 89,546 are soldiers from 123 countries, 13,434 are police officers and 1,793 are military observers. They are backed by thousands of civilian personnel, international and local, and more than 1,800 UN volunteers.
Lute’s Trip to the Field
In her briefing to the General Assembly in May 13, Lute, the new coordinator appointed in February as head of efforts to stop sexual exploitation and abuse — and who had been UN assistant secretary-general for peacekeeping from 2003 to 2007, responsible for ground support for missions worldwide — reported on her recent trip to the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo to meet UN mission leaders and others involved in peacekeeping work in the region to test commitment on the ground. Her impressions and findings were mixed.
“We found in the first instance very clear commitment by the leadership in both of these missions from the very top to eradicate any instance of sexual exploitation and abuse, and to vigorously respond when allegations arise,” she said. “But I can tell you that there are still pockets of resistance and pockets of reluctance to take this on personally by each and every member who serves under the UN in the field.
“Some of the resistance stems from still-held views that the problem of discipline, the problem of comportment, is not everyone’s problem.” The message that UN leadership wants to enforce, she said, is that “every single individual must personally associate themselves with this agenda, both in terms of their personal comportment and in terms of their attitude in the field when they become aware that transgressions have occurred.”
Some of the reluctance, she added, “stems from the fact that people don’t know in all cases what to do or where to go or to whom to report. We are taking steps, both in the field and at headquarters, to put together toolkits and mechanisms that clarify the appropriate response when individuals become aware of this.” Lute, she said, is working with a 90-day plan.
At the center of the behavior issue, as it applies to peacekeeping troops directly under UN command, are formal agreements between the UN and troop-contributing countries. These govern numerous aspects of deployment, from the health of soldiers, the risks to which they may be exposed, the value of the equipment they may bring with them (or what they may have stolen or damaged) and what level of reimbursement the governments who send them will receive.
Under a current agreement, reimbursement for each soldier is more than $1,300 a month, but troops in the field have long claimed they get a small fraction of that in pay, with their governments taking the bulk of the money. Peacekeeping is a source of considerable income to some developing countries, such as Bangladesh, Ethiopia, India, Pakistan and Rwanda.
What has caused the most trouble in these agreements with governments is the legal protection from prosecution for soldiers, national police and indeed the commanders of national contingents grouped under a UN force commander. Infringement of rules of behavior, including allegations of rape or other sexual abuses or exploitation, require that troops be sent back to their home countries for trial and, if convicted, for punishment. This happens only in a minority of cases, prompting critics to suggest that such blanket “hands off our troops” limitations on the UN peacekeeping department agreements should be reconsidered, and a new status of forces model be drawn up.
Some diplomats and nongovernment specialists who study UN peacekeeping strongly recommend revision of the rules to give the UN more power to act in cases alleging abuse, especially if it rises to the level of criminal activity. Paul Williams, a professor with the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., who has written extensively on UN peacekeeping, asked in an email that although the agreement with troop-contributing countries is fundamentally flawed in allowing them full legal power in dealing with their soldiers outside the reach of the UN Secretariat, “Is there any alternative?”
Referring to sexual exploitation and abuse, he added: “The best solution would be for UN member states to simply carry out proper discipline and punishment of their personnel if they are found guilty of SEA” — sex-abuse allegations.
The panel of experts on UN peacekeeping operations that published its global report in June 2015 said that there needed to be more consultation with troop and police commanders who face daily dangers themselves and sometime resist orders or fail to discipline soldiers under their commands. But it concluded: “In the face of imminent threats to civilians, there must be no tolerance for national constraints and the failure to follow orders.”
A succession of UN secretaries-general has said over the years, however, that leaning too hard on troop contributing nations, which governments would consider an intrusion into national sovereignty, might cause them to withdraw from UN missions. Troops can be hard to find as the number of missions grows.
Traumatized Societies, Vulnerable People
In a 2005 report that many in the UN system and diplomats who have worked with it say could have headed off many later problems, the author, Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein, went so far as to recommend courts martial.
“An on-site court martial for serious offences that are criminal in nature would afford immediate access to witnesses and evidence in the mission area,” Zeid wrote in his report for Kofi Annan, the UN secretary-general then. “An on-site court martial would demonstrate to the local community that there is no impunity for acts of sexual exploitation and abuse by members of military contingents.”
Zeid, a widely respected Jordanian diplomat who holds an undergraduate degree from Johns Hopkins University and a Ph.D. from Cambridge University, was the first president of the governing body of the International Criminal Court and is now the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Ironically, Zeid was caught up in the Central African Republic scandal in 2014-2015 when the UN human-rights office in Bangui, the country’s capital, deliberately withheld information on sexual abuse allegations from the high commissioner’s headquarters in Geneva, according to the December 2015 report. A Western diplomat, speaking on background, said recently that the whole affair had left Zeid deeply frustrated, since he, of all people, knew how bad conditions and behavior could be in the field.
In preparing his 2005 report, Zeid found that it was the “inability on the part of many peacekeepers to discern the extent to which the society is traumatized and vulnerable that is at the root of many of the problems.”
He recalled earlier reports from West Africa that indicated “the difficulty of identifying perpetrators because victims are often frightened, poorly educated young women and children who have difficulty in identifying their foreign assailants.”
Lute, in her recent briefing to the General Assembly related the explanations, or excuses, for bad behavior that she heard in the field. She also described the leadership of some battalion commanders who set very high standards for their troops.
“In the field, I saw a number of examples of what I considered to be the very best practice that I have seen anywhere,” she said. “For example: One of the commanders, from Malawi, walked us through the rigorous process that they go through to select the commander to lead a contingent in peacekeeping. He was asked as part of his selection process to develop a philosophy in combating SEA [sex-abuse allegations] and to develop a training plan to pursue over the course of his unit’s deployment. I asked to see both [his essay and plan] and they were immediately available and presented to me. This was not just an academic exercise, this was not just a rhetorical exercise. It was a tangible exercise, and a tangible demonstration of follow-up on the kind of best practice that we would like to see promulgated widely in the field.
“We have a number of contingents that don’t send commanders into the field unless those commanders have prior peacekeeping experience. In our view, that is a very good, indeed, best practice. We have a number of contingents that have daily accountability checks on their units. The Indian contingent, for example, has daily announced and unannounced checks of the location of their contingent members. There are restrictions on the ability of contingent members to travel in civilian clothes, restrictions on their ability to wander around local marketplaces or local villages and clear accountability throughout the chain of command.”
On the other hand, Lute found that excuses were still being made for violations of the rules, which are set out clearly in guidelines monitored by the peacekeeping department’s conduct and discipline unit, formed in 2005 and working with conduct teams or designated individuals in missions.
“Some voices have raised problems or issues that we have had to take into account,” Lute said. “Some said, We don’t have enough training. Some have said, Training is not the answer. Others have said, We have a focus too often on the military and not civilians; that’s unfair. We’ve had some who have said, The length of tour is the problem. We’ve had some who have said that the lack of welfare and recreation [for troops] is a problem. We’ve had some who have said, We don’t know what widespread [abuse] means. And we have some who have said that it is too difficult to overcome a culture of impunity, and we will never fix this problem.”
Her answers at the General Assembly were direct. “Military voices know that with good command and control, good leadership engagement, proper attentiveness to the conditions under which you are asking troops to operate requires constant, steady engagement irrespective of how long you are deployed. We all know that some of the most serious allegations have been committed by contingents that have a rotating period of four months. And we also know that there is no correlation between length of time in the field and the propensity for these acts to occur. The danger of sexual exploitation and abuse is ever present from those who are determined to commit these acts.
“Widespread [abuse] can be one soldier in five, or one soldier in 10, because a soldier’s failing almost never in a military context belongs to his or herself. Military operates deeply on a joint approach to mission achievement. You have a role to play, but we will all help you play your role, and you will help me play mine.”
Will Things Change?
Célhia de Lavarène, a French journalist who reported for Jeune Afrique and Radio France International before she became enraged by abusive behavior of UN peacekeepers she saw in her work in countries from Cambodia to Bosnia to Liberia, among many other places. It was a period in the 1990s during which a UN mission chief famously said, “Boys will be boys,” when nongovernment organizations complained about the behavior of peacekeepers.
De Lavarène set aside her journalism career and joined the UN in Cambodia from 1991-1993, working for an information section writing a bulletin. She went back to work as a journalist for a period and then back to the UN. Over the years, she worked in seven missions with the UN but started to fight human trafficking for sexual exploitation in Bosnia in 2001 and in Liberia in 2004.
What she saw was not only individual cases of exploitation of vulnerable women and sometimes men, but also the broader picture of large-scale trafficking that often springs up around large peacekeeping forces as well as national armies. In one case, she encountered a UN force commander who had acquired two young girls and installed them in his living quarters.
De Lavarène’s efforts were encouraged and supported by Jacques Paul Klein, an American commander in Bosnia and later in Liberia, and she was credited with rescuing hundreds of girls and women from bars and clubs where they were effectively held prisoners by traffickers. Returning to full-time journalism, she became a freelance correspondent based at the UN for the French investigative publication Mediapart and the news magazine L’Obs (formerly Le Nouvel Observateur) and also co-founded a nongovernment organization, STOP, an acronym for Stop Trafficking of People. De Lavarène is the author of a 2006 book on her experiences, “Un Visa pour l’Enfer” (“A Visa to Hell”).
Asked whether all the recent international attention to ending sexual abuse and exploitation involving peacekeepers would finally make progress in diminishing such tragedy and criminality, de Lavarène was skeptical. Too many people are involved in turning a blind eye to the corrupt system, which has to be tackled by governments from both developed and developing countries — soldiers and police officers have been sent home for misconduct by both rich and poor nations — as well as by local law enforcement in countries where peacekeepers are stationed and, above all, by UN officials, she said.
“The DPKO [Department of Peacekeeping Operations] has been talking about this since 2003-2004,” she said. “Why are they talking about it again now? Are things going to change? Never.”
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.