It is not surprising that António Guterres, the first United Nations secretary-general to be rooted in a life of politics and the first to have been a head of government, would look for a political strategy to address one of the UN’s most self-inflicted wounds: persistent sexual exploitation and abuse in peacekeeping missions.
When he launched his compact on Sept. 18 at the UN to prevent and end what he called “a global menace,” his audience was a political one — heads of state and government — and his pitch was that they must take responsibility for the troops and civilians that they assign to UN service. That takes political will.
No country, humanitarian agency or civil society organization is immune from allegations of abuse, Guterres said, stressing that his Compact on the Prevention of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse would put victims first. Moreover, he said, “We will not let anyone cover up these crimes with the UN flag.”
It is a gamble for Guterres. The compact is a voluntary agreement.
With no legal or juridical power at his disposal, the secretary-general wants a public commitment from government leaders, whom he asked to sign the compact. Among other provisions, it urges better vetting of troops and, most specifically, their commanders — before countries send them into the field with plans and instructions for policing behavior. Those troops or civilians who are alleged to have committed abuses on peacekeeping duty will be sent home for investigation and trial — a nod to the governments that are always on the lookout for what they see as invasions of national sovereignty, should the UN try to set up its own ad hoc courts.
The signed compacts will be filed at UN headquarters.
Questions arise right from the start of this process. Of the 193 UN member states asked to respond to the compact, it is far from clear how many government leaders have actually agreed to its terms or sought “adjustments” to suit their national situations. Nor is it clear how much the adjustments might be undercutting the original text.
On Sept. 18, Atul Khare, the under secretary-general for peacekeeping field support, gave a rough figure of 75 governments in agreement with the compact (of which only 39 had actually signed at that time). Subsequent requests by PassBlue for updates on numbers have been declined, with officials saying that the list still has to be “finalized.”
The UN did report that 57 heads of state or government had applied to join Guterres’s inner Circle of Leadership, to which any nation can apply. Its functions are still foggy, but from speakers at the Sept. 18 high-level meeting on the compact, it seemed that demonstrated good practices and willingness to contribute to a fund for victims were important.
One circle member, Bangladesh, a poor country now overrun by desperate Muslim Rohingya people fleeing violence in Buddhist-majority Burma, nonetheless pledged $100,000 to the fund, which had reached over $600,000 by mid-September. Yet Bangladesh is on the list of alleged abusers this year, with accusations against two uniformed police officers.
Ghana, also in the circle, is facing two allegations; and Canada, one. In all, there have been 44 serious allegations registered by the UN peacekeeping department so far this year, but it is not known how many of them come from countries that have signed the contract, beyond the Circle of Leadership. Most of the alleged abuses occurred in African missions. Six cases involve the South African military, with four others from Cameroon and another four from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
For 2016, there were 103 alleged violations; 69 in 2015 and 52 in 2014. The highest numbers in the latest data set were recorded in 2007 (127 cases) and in 2009 (112). In 2007, the UN dealt with a case involving 114 members of a 950-strong Sri Lankan army contingent serving in Haiti, who were charged with sexual abuse of children (using 18 as a cutoff age) and basically running a prostitution ring. All of the 114 members who faced charges (and three officers) were sent back to Sri Lanka in an agreement with the government.
Human-rights organizations have always insisted that there are many more cases of abuse and exploitation in and around missions that do not get reported or were never investigated. Organized prostitution, often involving trafficked women, is not uncommon. New allegations appear frequently but rarely work their way up the chain in the UN system.
Guterres wants to close these communication gaps — or, more often, cover-ups. Jane Holl Lute, the special coordinator on improving the UN response to sexual exploitation and abuse, with the rank of under secretary-general, acknowledged in a recent interview with PassBlue that the UN culture has often left people in the field too wary or too frightened to make allegations or pursue reports. She and Guterres say this must stop.
But how? It can be done but it takes political will, which is what Guterres is seeking to instill. From the small nation of Malawi in southern Africa to Finland at the northern pole, governments have devised policies that seem to work. Malawi requires would-be troop commanders to compete for peacekeeping assignments by writing action plans. Finland, much richer, may be the global gold standard.
At the Sept, 18 high-level meeting, Finland’s president, Sauli Niinisto, told his country’s story with understated pride.
“My own country, Finland, is content but not complacent about the fact that we have not had a single case of SEA [sexual exploitation and abuse] during more than 60 years of Finnish participation in UN peacekeeping,” he said. He described how these abuses are criminalized in Finnish legislation and made part of the regulations governing defense forces.
“Training and education is key in preventing sexual exploitation,” he said. “The Finnish Defense Forces International Center was the first in the world to receive UN certification for an operational level United Nations protection of civilians course. Questions related to SEA are a crucial part of the course content.”
All Finnish peacekeepers get predeployment training on the rules and procedures, with much of it dedicated to preventing violence against women. That should not be a lot to ask of those countries that are compensated by the UN, while not taking troop abuses seriously enough.
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.