Haunted by accumulating reports of sexual exploitation and abuse of women and girls by United Nations peacekeepers and others attached to UN missions around the world, Secretary-General António Guterres is taking the bold, unprecedented step of asking all governments to sign a compact pledging to prevent and stop these violations.
The compact is voluntary and bears no power of enforcement, leaving it open to criticism. Nevertheless, it goes well beyond current guidelines applying to uniformed UN personnel to cover anyone connected with a mission, all of whom could be held accountable for infractions.
“We recognize that the standards for uniformed personnel that have been adopted by the United Nations and Member States, in relation to protection from sexual exploitation and abuse, should be equally adopted by non-United Nations forces deployed under a Security Council mandate,” Guterres wrote in a draft document of his new policy. The proposal has been circulated to all relevant countries, which have been given a deadline of Aug. 25 to sign the compact or explain why they will not.
The compact will be the centerpiece at a Sept. 18 conference of high-level delegations from governments and a range of other organizations. In the past, soldiers attached to national military units supplied by governments and therefore not under UN control, as well as civilians both in and outside UN jurisdiction, have often been accused of offenses, but the UN has had to make the excuse that it has no jurisdiction in these cases.
There is also ample evidence in the field that commanders of UN peacekeeping troop contingents have often not followed current procedures and programs to detect and stop abuses, including sending offenders home for prosecution.
Jane Holl Lute, an American security expert who has been the UN under secretary-general in charge of handling the sex-abuse allegations and infractions issue since early 2016, will be a coordinator of the Sept. 18 meeting, which is being held a day before the UN General Assembly annual debate opens.
In May last year, Lute told the General Assembly that her impressions of compliance were mixed after a trip to the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to meet UN mission leaders. Her purpose was to test commitment on the ground.
“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,” she said. “Some of the resistance stems from still-held views that the problem of discipline, the problem of comportment, is not everyone’s problem.”
As Guterres wrote in a July 5 letter announcing the Sept. 18 conference, “The purpose of this meeting is to highlight the commitment and solidarity of Heads of State and/or Government, heads of international and regional organizations, civil society partners and the leadership of the United Nations to prevent and eradicate sexual exploitation and abuse.”
So far in 2017, 37 allegations of exploitation and sexual abuse have been registered by the UN peacekeeping department. In 2016, there were 103 cases; in 2015, 69; and 52 in 2014. Some of the highest number of allegations in the last decade were 127 in 2007 and 112 in 2009. These are known cases, but people in the field and international advocacy groups say that there are probably many, many more.
Nations signing the compact will be pledging to professionalize their operations and “demand accountability from our leaders, managers and commanders, and any individual who violates our fundamental values.” Victims — who tend to be mostly women and girls — are to be placed at the center of concern; in the past they have often been neglected, demeaned and in danger of physical harm.
Victims, the proposal says, “will be empowered and provided access to timely and effective assistance, and access to administrative and judicial processes and remedies.”
On his part, Guterres — who will countersign each government or organization pledge and keep the original on file at UN headquarters — plans to appoint a victims’ rights advocate in the Secretariat and create similar positions in “selected” field missions. [On Aug. 23, the UN victims’ right advocate was named: Jane Connors of Australia.]
According to Guterres’s February 2017 document outlining his overall plan for combating sex abuse, the “selected” missions were those reporting the highest number of allegations: the Central African Republic; the Democratic Republic of the Congo; Haiti; and South Sudan.
A UN spokesperson said that there were numerous follow-up mechanisms at the secretary-general’s disposal, including the “memoranda of understanding” drawn up with troop- and police-contributing countries as well as existing General Assembly resolutions and Security Council resolutions.
Diplomats and nongovernment specialists who study UN peacekeeping have strongly recommended revising the current rules in the agreements with troop contributors to give the UN more real power to act in cases alleging abuse, especially if it rises to the level of criminal activity. Experts have long charged that the rules are fundamentally flawed but also say, however, that there is no way governments will agree to effectively losing authority over their soldiers or civilian officials.
It has been nearly two years since a sweeping assessment of UN 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. Secretary-General Guterres’s new compact falls far short of demanding the power to change existing memorandums, though it proposes more involvement in making governments and others more accountable, and it may be seen as a step in a more intrusive direction.
In the new compact, Guterres commits the UN to upgrade investigations by, among other measures, facilitating “the collection, preservation and transmission of DNA evidence in response to requests for assistance in filing and paternity or child support claim.” He also promises to establish vetting systems to find and eliminate anyone with a history of sexual exploitation and abuse.
Most controversial is likely to be the UN’s support to rid legal systems, in countries contributing people to UN missions, of obstacles to criminal prosecution, “including through any necessary legislative reform.” Invasion of national sovereignty is often the accusation leveled when changes to domestic law and practice are proposed.
In the proposal, the UN asks governments to deploy commanders only with peacekeeping experience and to make them accountable for disciplining soldiers and police under their commands.
The word “voluntary” in the draft compact means it will surely need to be monitored and tested rigorously in peacekeeping missions, particularly in countries where violence and lawlessness prevail as well as where government military and other security services reflect cultures in which women are regularly abused, neglected and denied their civil and human rights. The same cultural and social issues also arise in some troop-contributing countries, where domestic violence is common and judicial systems weak.
The UN advises more human-rights training and sensitization on the subject of women’s roles and place in society in nations that send troops or civilians in any capacity to peacekeeping missions. That’s a tall order.
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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.