Marie Deschamps is a former justice on the Supreme Court of Canada who led the groundbreaking 2015 United Nations report of an independent review on sexual exploitation and abuse by international peacekeeping forces in the Central African Republic. Deschamps agreed to talk in late December about how the report has been followed up — or not — by the UN and how it relates to current worldwide attention on issues of sexual misconduct and abuse.
The interview, which includes a podcast, was led by Joanne Myers, director of the Public Affairs Program at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, in conjunction with PassBlue.
JOANNE MYERS: In June 2015, following reported allegations of UN peacekeepers’ abusive behavior in Central African Republic [UN mission called Minusca] you were appointed by the then-Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to lead an independent investigation into peacekeeping procedures. This report came out almost exactly two years ago in December 2015. Could you spend a few minutes just setting the context for the report, why it was necessary to create an independent review and what was the UN’s initial response?
MARIE DESCHAMPS: Yes. At the time, the secretary-general was under heavy pressures from a group of member states because of a perception that there was a cover-up of an attempted firing of a high-ranking director. Very senior UN members would have attempted to fire him because he would have used allegations in a way that were allegedly not permitted; it was not allowed for him to do that. In other words, he acted as a whistleblower for sexual abuse of children by peacekeepers.
Our mandate was to make recommendations on two issues: first, find out about the facts surrounding the alleged firing; and second, the sexual abuses. So there were two different issues. Today, I will only discuss the reaction of the United Nations to sexual abuse, and I will not specifically address the rapes and abuses that occurred at the time because so much more has occurred since then that it would not do justice to the actual series of events if I would only go back to these events that occurred in 2013 and 2014.
MYERS: Right. The object is really to follow up because your report provided an opportunity for the United Nations to chart a new course of action and to undertake some meaningful organizational change. So the question is, since you did have some very specific recommendations to overhaul peacekeeping operations in order to protect the victims of alleged sexual abuse and exploitation and more allegations were coming forward, the obvious conclusion is that the United Nations probably did not listen to your recommendations. Is that true?
DESCHAMPS: I must say that not much has been done. Both Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Secretary-General [António] Guterres are speaking up against sexual abuse, but in practice I am less than sure that anything circulates to the United Nations because what we can observe are the very same problems that we have observed for decades because our panel was not the first one to be asked to review the sexual abuse going on in the United Nations. The first allegations date back to the 1980s.
To come back to our recommendations, one of our main recommendations was to address policies and standards. We found a lack of clear policies. We found, in fact, that there were two separate sets of policies by which sexual abuse could be addressed. This approach to policies led to a lot of confusion. In fact, it allowed one of the persons who was most responsible for not disclosing what was going on to rely on a twisted interpretation and to simply keep a lid on what was going on in Central Africa.
MYERS: Could I just stop a moment here and ask, by “confusion” do you mean it was confusing as who they were to report to? It is my understanding just reading some background material that the countries are responsible for their own peacekeepers, and going through the United Nations makes it a little bit more difficult because nobody knows who is actually responsible. Is that true?
DESCHAMPS: That is totally true. But it goes even beyond that because even when the United Nations does something, even when UN employees who are responsible for human rights want to act, they have two separate avenues. You have within the mission human rights section or human rights — what they are called varies depending on the mission — but you have human rights sections whereby the head of the human rights section will report both to the representative of the secretary-general and to the high commissioner of human rights in Geneva. So one would be located in New York and the other would be located in Geneva. In New York, they have their own set of human rights policies, and in Geneva they have their own human rights policies. So even within the United Nations you have different policies. And that is besides the issue that you are pointing to.
Whenever there are allegations that could be prosecuted before criminal courts, the United Nations, which is not a state, has no authority to institute criminal proceedings. Sometimes they could report to the home country or to the country where the mission is located, or they could report to the country from which, for example, for allegations concerning the military, to the country that sent the military to the mission. So already it is very confusing.
It is not very clear who will take the responsibility for the prosecution even when it is a criminal act, and even when the United Nations would want to take action. Within the United Nations there is confusion as to who should take action.
MYERS: Your recommendation — I think it was your second recommendation — of creating a coordination unit has not come to pass.
DESCHAMPS: No. They have not created a coordination unit. They have not harmonized the policies. I do not think there is any way for someone who would like to find out how to maneuver within the United Nations to find out a single path that the person should take to ensure that there is accountability. No policy, obviously no coordination unit would be able to follow up on the policy.
They have appointed a person to oversee what was going on in terms of sexual exploitation and abuse. The person in this duty has to report to the secretary-general. In my view, reporting to the secretary-general is not sufficient because it has to be a center that has some kind of independence because there is no way that someone who is within the United Nations will report to the United Nations because they will fear losing their job, they will fear not getting promotions they think they should get. They will simply not report the abuses that are going on. They will not want to be seen as troublemakers.
MYERS: How do you change this? It seems to me that what you are saying is that the United Nations is more interested in rhetoric than in actual action. I think it is important by just talking about it over and over again that maybe some action will be taken, and I know that Secretary-General Guterres implemented a compact. He introduced it in September, asking nations to sign on to look at sexual abuse. Do you think this will change anything? Because I know that only 50-some countries have indicated an interest in doing so.
DESCHAMPS: The problem with the compact is that it is voluntary. If the United Nations is not able to — I do not want to say force, because the United Nations in itself is a very large organization and the secretary-general has no authority on them, but the United Nations should be able to signal that the issue is so important that member states need to participate. It is not sufficient that member states will just join in and appear to be willing to participate, if the countries just pay lip service to what is being said than what needs to be done.
I mentioned that policies need to be changed. A lot can be done by the Secretariat itself, but they also need the participation of member states. For example, in terms of prevention, in our report we indicated that there were many deficiencies in prevention.
One of the main problems we saw was a problem in screening of the troops. The United Nations could enact or could issue policies by which they could indicate, be more proscriptive in terms of what kind of screening should be done. For example, in terms of support for the victims, the United Nations delegates most of its responsibility — or in the case of our report, what we noticed was the United Nations Children’s Fund [Unicef] — but the United Nations and Unicef delegate their responsibility in terms of victim support to nongovernmental organizations [NGOs] that are very badly underfunded. The United Nations cannot do anything without funds, so screening, funding of victims, you need funds.
Also, I talked about prevention. One of the items was screening of troops. I should also talk about proper training. The United Nations itself could do more in terms of proper training.
MYERS: Or the countries could institute some type of vetting procedure before the peacekeepers are even enlisted to follow up on the screening, the vetting, and the database, and to continue on that line.
DESCHAMPS: Yes. The United Nations could themselves be more involved in the screening of the troops and in the training. They do not need to rely only on the countries who contribute the troops.
Also, in terms of investigations and prosecutions, one of the huge problems that we noticed is that whenever there are allegations, if they are found to be serious, very often the military will simply be returned to its home country. The problem is that the victims do not see what is being done because they do not even know whether it is prosecuted or not. So they get the impression — and the perception I have to say is not unfounded — that nothing is done. So there is this climate of impunity that goes on.
MYERS: Yes. Holding the perpetrators accountable, absolutely.
DESCHAMPS: That is it. On this front also, the United Nations could make sure that something is done within the country where the victim is located so that the victim sees that there is a follow-up to allegations that they can make. I talked about the policies, I talked about the deficiencies in prevention, I talked about prosecution. We talked about a climate of impunity, and a climate of impunity leads to underreporting. We talked about the fact that there needs to be an independent organization, an independent center that the victims can turn to when they want to report.
But another very important issue where the center could be very active and could help the United Nations to make progress is in the collection of data. One of the problems that is a common denominator to all of this is that there is no data on sexual exploitation and abuse.
MYERS: The database is absolutely necessary.
DESCHAMPS: That is it. There are many databases, but they do not speak to each other. That means that nothing is comprehensive. So if nothing is comprehensive, if the United Nations is not even able to understand the extent of the problem, it is very problematic.
They should at least create this center or ask a person to be a focal point for the collection of data so that all parts of the United Nations could report to them. This would help the United Nations. It would provide the means to make clear that sexual abuse is a huge problem that is threatening the United Nations as a whole. It leads to a lack of credibility that impacts the very good actions that the United Nations can do.
MYERS: The leadership vacuum I think is what you are describing.
DESCHAMPS: Of course, it takes someone to take the ball and run with it. I hope that Secretary-General Guterres will be the person to do that.
MYERS: Yes, and particularly launching this compact for the prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse is a step in the right direction. Before we end, I just have a question, because I know you are Canadian, and I know that your foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, has proposed that more women become peacekeepers, as this initiative has the potential to bring lasting changes to the UN peace operations. Would you like to comment on this?
DESCHAMPS: I am very supportive of this kind of approach because in many countries, unfortunately, victims are very often women. Only when women are in leadership positions will there be some kind of deep sensitivity toward this issue. Only when women are more visible will the victims feel more comfortable to speak up. Because the problem is not only with the military. I am sure you are aware that the very few statistics that are known reveal that the problem of sexual exploitation and abuse is also very present within civilians. So we need women in leadership not only in military positions but also in civilian positions.
MYERS: Well, it is no secret that this has rocked the United Nations and undermined the trust in the foreign troops who arrive to keep the peace and bring stability to trouble spots, and it is obvious that it is a systemic challenge that demands a system response. I thank you once again for your work on this report and for taking the time to speak with us today. Thank you very much, Madame Deschamps.
DESCHAMPS: You are welcome. Thank you to you because this issue has to be kept alive.