UN peacekeepers are sent to the most war-ravaged countries on Earth, ostensibly to help them transition to peace.
But some stand accused of committing crimes against the very people they are supposed to protect.
According to a recent investigation by the Associated Press, between 2004 and 2016, the United Nations received almost 2,000 allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse against its peacekeepers.
The UN says it has a zero tolerance policy on sexual exploitation and abuse, but survivors, activists, lawyers and human rights organisations say such crimes have been allowed to continue with impunity.
Through conversations with UN peacekeepers and officials, gender experts, academics, researchers and activists, as well as through an investigation of UN data, we try to navigate these competing accounts to answer the question: How did some peacekeepers become predators?
A history of immunity?
When, at the end of World War II, the UN conceived of peacekeepers it made them immune from prosecution by the host state for any alleged crimes committed while on mission. This was considered necessary to stop others sabotaging their efforts to assist in post-conflict environments.
Instead, they would be held accountable by their own government or judicial system.
Decades later, however, it became apparent that some peacekeepers were abusing this privileged position.
It was not envisioned that immunity would become so problematic
According to Fiona Tate, a PhD candidate studying law at Queen Mary University of London in the UK, it was part of a problem with much deeper roots.
When the UN first started deploying peacekeepers in 1948, it didn’t consider the rights of women and children in the militarised environments in which the peacekeepers would be operating.
“As a result of this exclusion, crimes committed against [women] would go largely unrecorded,” explains Tate.
But in the early 1990s, these crimes started to come to international attention.
There have since been reports of rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eriteria, Mozambique, and Somalia, of prostitution and trafficking in Bosnia and Liberia and of abuse of minors in Sierra Leone.
In 1992, the Department of Peacekeeping Operations was set up.
In 1994, the UN appointed Graca Machel, the former first lady of Mozambique, to investigate the effects of armed conflict on children. Her landmark report, released in August 1996, was one of the first to raise the issue of the sexual exploitation of children by peacekeepers and to call for an end to impunity for the perpetrators.
In 2001, it was discovered that aid workers and UN peacekeepers had sexually abused refugees in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
In 2003, the then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan introduced a zero tolerance policy on sexual abuse and exploitation as well as a special mechanism for reporting it.
He also “discouraged” peacekeepers from engaging in sexual relations with beneficiaries of assistance “since they are based on inherently unequal power dynamics, [and] undermine the credibility and integrity of the work of the United Nations”.
In his letter to the UN Security Council, Annan wrote: “We cannot tolerate even one instance of a UN peacekeeper victimising the most vulnerable among us.”
Part II: Is the UN sending the wrong people to keep the peace?
But the abuse didn’t end.
“Often [accused] peacekeepers were just moved out of their mission, deployed elsewhere or sent home,” explains Paul Higate, a lecturer at the school of sociology, politics and international studies at the University of Bristol in the UK.
The AP’s investigation revealed that few of the accusations levelled against UN peacekeepers led to prosecutions by member states. And when peacekeepers did end up in court, it was often on reduced charges.
“It was not envisioned that immunity would become so problematic,” says Tate.
‘Worst kept secret’?
In 1999, an American hired as a UN police investigator by the British subsidiary of the American security firm DynCorp International was fired. Her name was Kathryn Bolkovac and, following reports of sexual abuse and forced prostitution that implicated UN personnel in Bosnia, she had been tasked with investigating the alleged crimes.
But when she submitted a report to her superiors detailing a sex trafficking ring among UN police officers, including Ukrainians, Pakistanis, Romanians, Germans and Americans working in conjunction with local criminal gangs, she was fired.
Bolkovac became a campaigner for women’s rights in conflict zones.
“I have spoken on this issue for the past 15 years … there has been little progress,” she says.
Bolkovac believes the UN is fraught with misreporting, concealment and a lack of accountability. She describes sexual abuse by its peacekeepers as the organisation’s “worst kept secret”.
“The UN will never promptly report allegations to troop-contributing countries to avoid publicity and to give them time to cover up,” Bolkovac says.
Part III: Do UN peacekeepers do more harm than good?
Ismini Palla, deputy chief of public affairs at the UN Departments of Peacekeeping and Field Support, disputes Bolkovac’s view. “The UN notifies the concerned member state on every allegation of sexual exploitation and abuse within days of the receipt of the allegation and makes the information concurrently publicly available on the conduct and discipline unit website,” she explains.
“The secretary-general has also requested member states to finalise investigations within a six-month timeframe.”
Palla says there have been improvements in the response of member states to accusations of sexual exploitation and abuse.
“In 2012, the average time to appoint a national investigation officer was two and a half months and in 2016 was only eight days. Similarly, in 2012, a national investigation would last 266 days but in 2015 the duration dropped to 185 days (six months).”
What happens when ‘the secret’ is exposed?
But to illustrate her point, Bolkovac refers to the case of Anders Kompass, the man widely credited with exposing allegations of sexual abuse by around 16 troops – 11 from France, three from Chad and two from Equatorial Guinea – in the Central African Republic in 2015.
Although the French troops were not peacekeepers, they were sent by the UN Security Council to assist in restoring peace and stability following a coup in March 2013. The peacekeepers from Chad and Equatorial Guinea were part of the African Union.
Kompass, a former director of field operations at the UN human rights office in Geneva, submitted a report to his superiors detailing the abuses allegedly carried out by the French troops in CAR.
When the UN failed to act upon the report, Kompass leaked it to the French authorities in July 2014. It documented allegations of sexual abuse against 13 minors, including the sodomy of boys between the ages of nine and 13.
In March 2015, Kompass was denounced by the UN for violating protocol by sharing the report and was placed on internal investigation. He was exonerated nine months later, but subsequently resigned. He told Irin news that he refused to work for an organisation that lacked accountability.
An independent panel appointed to investigate this by then Secretary General Ban Ki-moon described the UN’s handling of allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation as a “gross institutional failure”.
The independent panel’s report noted the lack of respect, dignity and protection afforded to survivors and found that Babacar Gaye, the head of the UN mission in the Central African Republic, neither acted on the allegations nor made any attempt to ensure that the child survivors received medical attention or humanitarian aid.
“The welfare of the survivors and the accountability of the perpetrators appeared to be an afterthought, if considered at all,” the report stated. In August 2015, Gaye was forced to resign.
There was data, testimony and even stories written all over the world. But in the end, the French prosecutors dropped the cases
French prosecutors eventually dropped their case against six French troops in January 2017 over a lack of evidence.
But Lydie Koundja, a lawyer and chairperson of the Association des Femmes Juristes de Centrafrique, an organisation that assists and represents survivors of sexual abuse in the Central African Republic, says her organisation has applied to the High Court in Bangui for the case against the French peacekeepers to be reopened. She’s aware that it’s a long shot.
“We have evidence, we have testimony. Now we will see what the judge says,” Koundja explains.
“There was data, testimony and even stories written all over the world. But in the end, the French prosecutors dropped the cases,” she says.
Experts say that the UN’s processes almost certainly shield the accused.
Carla Ferstman, the author of a 2013 report by the United States Institute of Peace called Criminalising Sexual Exploitation and Abuse by Peacekeepers, says there is “no transparency at any level of investigations [by the UN or the governments of the accused peacekeepers]”.
Beatrice Lindstrom, a lawyer with the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, a New York-based NGO that helps survivors of human rights violations pursue cases in national and international courts, describes the UN investigations system as “incredibly opaque”.
“When it comes to the UN, justice is extremely rare,” she adds.
“The UN’s gut reaction is always to cover up, to handle in-house, to make the problem go away,” Lindstrom says.
“Yes, of course, rape happens everywhere, but there is no system where you have this type of legal protection for such crimes. These are people being sent to protect others, after all.”
But Stephane Dujarric, spokesperson for the UN secretary general, disagrees, saying: “I don’t think anyone is trying to bury these cases and trying to make them go away.”
The spokesperson for the UN’s peacekeeping operations, Olivier Salgado, describes the fight against sexual exploitation and abuse as “a top priority of the secretary general and the entire leadership of the organisation”.
“Fighting sexual exploitation and abuse is a system-wide uphill battle and we will not let anyone cover up these crimes with the UN flag,” Salgado tells Al Jazeera.
Bambari, Central African Republic
In late 2015, Eunice Danpena* heard a knock on the door of her hut at a displacement camp in Bambari, a town in the Ouaka prefecture in the Central African Republic.
It was a UN peacekeeper. She told him she was busy. But he let himself in and raped her. “He forced himself on me and as he was stronger I had no choice,” she says.
*Name changed to protect identity
There are currently 12,870 peacekeepers in the Central African Republic. Since 2015, there have been 83 allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse in the country. The allegations concern some 177 UN peacekeepers and 255 survivors. To date, just five of the accused have been jailed.
Fighters for peace?
At its core, say some experts, peacekeeping is an ambiguous and contradictory notion.
Militaries by definition demand a type of behaviour “premised on violence and aggression, individual conformity to military discipline,” writes Sandra Whitworth, a professor of political science at York University in Toronto, Canada and the author of Men, Militarism, and UN Peacekeeping: A Gendered Analysis.
But, say Higate and Marsha Henry, Deputy Director of the Centre for Women, Peace and Security at the London School of Economics, peacekeeping operations require a different set of values and emotions, such as impartiality and empathy – “attributes that may have been discouraged by traditional military training”.
In 2000, UN Security Council Resolution 1325 recognised that armed conflict affected women and men in different ways. But what this resolution means in practice is unclear. Nina Wilen, deputy editor of the journal International Peacekeeping and a postdoctoral fellow based in Belgium, says that while the resolution brings attention to “women’s role and participation in conflict and peace processes”, it also “paints an essentialist picture of women in conflict and peace processes as ‘inherently peaceful’ and ‘fragile'”.
Kelly-Jo Bluen, a former project leader for international justice at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in Johannesburg, South Africa, believes that the emphasis on rape as a weapon of war complicates approaches to it when it is carried out by those who aren’t in an explicitly military role.
This type of project needs diversity … when we go on patrol, it is clear we need women on patrol, because women are most vulnerable and it encourages them to come out of their shell.
Bluen says the UN Security Council’s Women, Peace and Security Agenda frameworks view peacekeepers as part of the solution to sexual violence, as opposed to complicit in it.
“We should stop viewing peacekeeper sexual violence as ideationally distinct from other forms of sexual violence,” she says.
“We operate in good and bad binaries. We see rape as … perpetrated by monsters. As a result, the system is not able to accommodate acts of violence when it doesn’t fit our moral universe. Our fixation with the perfect victim and the perfect perpetrator. What this means is that if a perpetrator does not fit the idea of an ‘evil warlord’, it simply doesn’t suit the narrative.”
“Sexual violence happens in a multiplicity of ways,” Bluen argues.
“And … if we recognise patriarchy is a global phenomenon, why do we think that international organisations would be exempt?” she asks.
A symptom of racism
Sexual violence is also a symptom of racism and feelings of superiority towards the local community that are often inbuilt into the peacekeeping industry, Henry believes.
There have been more cases of sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeepers in the missions in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic, Haiti, Liberia, South Sudan and Ivory Coast than in all other UN missions combined.
Henry says the fact that many of the most severely affected places are former French colonies speaks to the way in which a colonial past has influenced contemporary forms of sexual violence.
“There is always an element of racism, gender and class at play in these contexts. Peacekeeping spaces are not neutral sites,” she explains.
Aditya Mehta, a communications officer at the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations, explains that it is the responsibility of troop and police-contributing countries to screen those they nominate to serve in peacekeeping missions.
“The UN requests member states to certify they have conducted this screening for disciplinary/criminal records and human rights violations, including sexual exploitation and abuse,” he explains, adding: “In April 2016, the Secretariat has begun vetting all individuals being deployed as members of military contingents and formed police units for prior misconduct … while in the service of the United Nations. This marks a considerable expansion to the previously established vetting practices …”
Should there be more female peacekeepers?
One of the recurring issues raised by experts and UN personnel is the low number of women involved in peacekeeping operations.
According to Mehta: “Women are deployed as police, military and civilian[s] and have made a positive impact on peacekeeping environments, both in supporting the role of women in building peace and [in] protecting women’s rights.”
He says that of the approximately 105,000 peacekeepers who are deployed, roughly 3,700 military personnel and 1,200 police are women.
Mehta explains that this is an increase that has been made possible due to advocacy efforts by the UN. “The UN Police Division is continuing its global effort to recruit more female police officers into national police services and into UN police operations around the world,” he says. “Similarly, the Office of Military Affairs is engaging troop-contributing countries to encourage and advocate for the deployment of women to uniformed functions.”
“However,” Mehta adds, “the responsibility for deployment of women in the police and military lies with member states.”
Evelyn Kugblenu, the gender officer for UN police in MINUSCA, the UN mission in the Central African Republic (CAR), says there are just 44 women in that mission.
“This type of project needs diversity … when we go on patrol, it is clear we need women on patrol, because women are most vulnerable and it encourages them to come out of their shell,” she tells Al Jazeera from Bangui, the capital of CAR.
But Henry says that increasing the number of women on patrol won’t change an operational hierarchy dominated by men.
Laskhmi Puri, the deputy executive director of UN Women, told Al Jazeera in May 2016 that UN Women conducted “gender training” before troops were deployed in an attempt to make them “gender-sensitive”.
But Henry says the expectation that training will turn peacekeepers into “gender-aware individuals” is naive.
Training has evolved, she says, but it isn’t the solution.
Bluen is more candid in her criticism. She says pinning “better behaviour” on “training” and “sensitisation” is irresponsible and almost certainly coded in racism. There are currently around 96,000 peacekeepers around the world. The biggest troop-contributing countries include Bangladesh, Ethiopia, India, Rwanda and Pakistan.
“What it says to me is that these are barbarian troops who need to be civilised, when we all know that all countries from all parts of the globe have committed these crimes,” she explains.
Bolkovac agrees, arguing that anyone who believes the issue is about poorly trained Third World troops “is delusional”.
Both Bluen and Balkovac believe the problem is not one of training or the calibre of troops but of “militarised masculinity”.
“Peacekeeping is a militarised act, with military actors, in a militarised context, and this always comes with patriarchy,” Bluen says.
But the UN’s Dujarric explains that the term “peacekeeper” applies not only to blue-helmeted armed soldiers but also to unarmed police officers and military observers, doctors and civilians.
These peacekeepers, Dujarric says, often go to places where no one else wants to go, to areas where conflict is still active, with the mandate to protect civilians.
“Peacekeepers have often been called upon to adopt a forward-leaning posture to do their job, this includes the physical protection of civilians. It’s clear that this work can only be done by men and women who are trained soldiers,” Dujarric adds.
But Paula Donovan, from New York-based NGO Aids Free World, insists it is time that peacekeeping as an idea is revisited, interrogated and reconsidered.
“Do you really take soldiers, trained to kill and trained to dehumanise so they can be killing machines, and suddenly redeploy them, and get them to play soccer; patrol the streets? Does that formula make sense in this day and age?” she asks.
Abobo, Ivory Coast
In 2008, 13-year-old Elizabeth* was pushed to the ground by peacekeepers in a field close to her home near the town of Abobo in the Ivory Coast. The peacekeepers gang-raped her and left her bleeding on the field.
“They grabbed me and threw me to the ground and they forced themselves on me … I tried to escape, but there were 10 of them and I could do nothing,” she says.
In July 2017, the UN mission to Ivory Coast, or UNOCI, ended its mandate after 13 years in the country. Initially, there were 6,800 peacekeepers but by 2016, this number had dwindled to around 2,800.
*Name changed to protect identity
Since 2010, there have been 30 allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse in the country. The allegations concern some 31 peacekeepers and 31 survivors. Five of the accused have been jailed. The UN has incomplete data for allegations and cases of sexual exploitation and abuse before 2010.
In her 2015 book, Peaceland, Severine Autesserre, a professor of political science at Columbia University in the US, writes about a “community of interveners for whom peace is either the primary objective (like peacekeepers) or part of a broader set of goals (such as diplomats or development workers)” who often exist in a parallel world to the people they are meant to serve.
She argues that the way in which this community lives, talks and collaborates with locals reinforces “a pervasive power disparity between the interveners and their intended beneficiaries”.
The “peacekeeping economy” – in which millions of dollars arrive, circulate between external actors and rarely reach or benefit the local community – emboldens a sense of impunity and superiority among this community of interveners, says Henry, pointing to how peacekeepers and the aid community often live privileged, if precarious, lives in an economy that caters more to their needs than to the development goals of the country they are in.
“You have immunity and privilege, and you fly business class, and you have privileges that you never had before, and quickly people begin to internalise this idea that the world is ‘us’ and ‘them’,” explains Donovan.
Bluen argues that peacekeepers often parachute in with little regard for the local population and with the notion that they are saviours. “The focus becomes one of violence ‘out there’ as opposed to the economies of violence and acts of sexual violence fostered and perpetrated by peacekeepers,” she explains.
Interaction with the local population is often discouraged. But Henry argues that there should be more, not less, of it. When interaction does happen, it is often in the form of peacekeepers parading in their armoured vehicles and blue helmets, something she says furthers the “dehumanisation of the host population”.
One peacekeeper in the Central African Republic, who did not want to give his name as he was not authorised to talk to the media, told Al Jazeera, that his battalion had been instructed not to talk to or engage with the local population. “It just creates the possibilities for the wrong things to happen … the next thing you know, we are accused of something,” he says.
Peacekeeping and prostitution
There is one particular economy that can be fed by the presence of peacekeepers.
In the International Organization journal article Peacekeeping, Compliance with International Norms, and Transactional Sex in Monrovia, published in late 2016, researchers found that more than 50 percent of women surveyed in the Liberian capital, Monrovia, had engaged in transactional sex. “A large majority – 75 percent – with UN peacekeeping,” the report found.
Widely touted as the first quantitative study of the association between a UN peacekeeping operation and transactional sex, the report stated: “Transactional sex with UN personnel is a ubiquitous life experience among young women in Monrovia.
“The actions of UN peacekeepers are undermining the UN’s broader peace-building goals in Liberia,” it continued.
“When UNMIL (UN Mission in Liberia) withdraws, it will leave behind a distorted economy in which more than half Monrovia’s young women will have been making their livelihoods by selling sex.”
When several international aid agencies raised the alarm over abusive behaviour by UN peacekeepers in Cambodia between 1991 and 1993, including them visiting brothels where some of the prostitutes were underage, Yasushi Akashi, the then head of the UN mission to Cambodia, responded, “boys will be boys”.
Reflecting on Akashi’s comments, Whitworth writes that bringing peace to Cambodia “was accompanied [by] the deployment of soldiers who assumed that their prerogatives as militarised men included access to prostitutes, as well as a freedom to pursue, harass, and assault local women”.
What constitutes exploitation and what abuse?
The UN discourages sexual relations between peacekeepers and the local community, arguing that it fosters unequal relations.
While peacekeepers can be fired or repatriated for breaking UN code by engaging in sexual relations, including paying for sex (defined as exploitation by the UN) with a member of the local community, they can escape prosecution if the UN rules that it is not abuse (such as rape), or if prostitution is not illegal in the country.
prostitution, or what some term sex work, is rarely, if ever, the first choice of those who are hungry and/or have families to support. It is almost always a last resort and peacekeepers must reflect on their positions of power and privilege.”]
It is up to the UN to decide whether the peacekeeper’s behaviour is deemed exploitation or abuse.
The UN’s Salgado explains the distinction between the two.
“Sexual exploitation incorporates an inherently unequal power dynamic. Sexual abuse is a physical act committed whether by force or under unequal or coercive conditions. Both sexual exploitation and sexual abuse, however, violate the fundamental values of the United Nations and its standards of conduct.”
“It is also important to note,” he adds, “that in some instances, sexual exploitation may lead to sexual abuse and should, therefore, be given the utmost attention.”
‘Consensual’ sex and unequal power dynamics
When in 2003, the then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan introduced a zero tolerance policy on sexual abuse and exploitation, he also “discouraged” peacekeepers from engaging in sexual relations with beneficiaries of assistance “since they are based on inherently unequal power dynamics, [and] undermine the credibility and integrity of the work of the United Nations”.
But academics and researchers disagree over the effectiveness of this approach.
The pressure on peacekeepers to remain celibate for long missions is “unreasonable”, says Henry. “Many just don’t see paying someone for sex as a major infraction … if they cover it up, it is because they know the UN doesn’t like it,” she adds.
Higate agrees that it is counterproductive to regulate or prohibit sexual relations between consenting adults.
But Gill Mathurin, communications director of Aids Free World, on the other hand, argues that it is “not possible for there to be consensual sex between UN peacekeepers and the people they are sent to serve”.
Higate believes there needs to be greater clarity over how sexual relations are understood in the context of the power dynamics between peacekeepers and the host population.
“The situation of adults involved in survival prostitution should not be equated with the rape of a child,” he says.
“[But] prostitution, or what some term sex work, is rarely, if ever, the first choice of those who are hungry and/or have families to support. It is almost always a last resort and peacekeepers must reflect on their positions of power and privilege.”
Bunia, Democratic Republic of Congo
Helen Wembe* was at home in the village of Bunia, in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, when a peacekeeper came to the door. Wembe, who was 13 years old at the time, explained that her grandmother wasn’t home as she had gone to a funeral. The peacekeeper entered.
“He raped me. My brothers and sisters were in the house at the time,” she says.
That was in 2004, the same year the international media reported that peacekeepers had been exchanging eggs, bananas, and peanut butter for sex with women and children in Wembe’s village. The women involved said they were hungry, homeless or needed items for their babies or households.
Hundreds of children were subsequently born in Bunia. The UN introduced DNA testing to determine the paternity of these so-called “peacekeeper babies“.
Source: United Nations
*Name changed to protect identity
There are currently 22,016 peacekeepers in the DRC. Since 2015, there have been 47 allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse in the DRC. These include 83 peacekeepers and 65 survivors. To date, five of the accused have been jailed.
How are allegations investigated?
In May 2005, the UN Security Council held a public meeting about sexual exploitation and abuse in peacekeeping. It was the first meeting of its kind at the UN. The council condemned “all acts of sexual abuse and exploitation committed by peacekeepers and reiterated the importance of ensuring that they were properly investigated and appropriately punished”.
In 2007, the UN created the Conduct and Discipline Unit (CDU) to deal with all types of misconduct, including sexual exploitation and abuse.
Allegations are reported to the CDU and Conduct and Discipline Teams (CDT) in the field. The CDT then assesses the allegations and refers them to an investigative arm of the field mission.
If the case involves a military officer, it is referred to the troop-contributing country for investigation. If it involves a civilian member of the UN, the UN is tasked with investigating it.
Crucially, a referral is supposed to activate support services, such as psycho-social support or medical services, for the survivor.
Legal proceedings are rarely instituted. This is partly due to the fact that most survivors do not have access to representation to advise them on how to launch a claim
Nicola Dahrendorf, the chief coordinator of the CDT at MINUSCA, the UN mission in the Central African Republic, says that if an allegation involves a member of the military contingent, the team “will inform the troop-contributing state concerned within 72 hours and request their appointment of a National Investigation Officer within five to 10 days, depending on the gravity of the allegation”.
Atul Khare, the undersecretary-general for the UN Department of Field Support, says he believes the UN is “advancing in the right direction” and that it has displayed “greater transparency” over how allegations are investigated.
But activists, such as Donovan from Aids Free World, express concern that, by requiring the UN or troop-contributing countries to investigate cases against their own personnel, the process is fraught with conflicts of interest. As there is no independent body monitoring the process, there can be no way of knowing if it is honest and fair, Donovan explains.
According to lawyer Lindstrom, if a case does make it to court the survivors aren’t always represented as the UN does not provide them with legal counsel.
“Legal proceedings are rarely instituted. This is partly due to the fact that most survivors do not have access to representation to advise them on how to launch a claim,” says Lindstrom.
If it is decided at the investigation stage, either by the UN or the troop-contributing country, that there is insufficient evidence to pursue a case, Lindstrom says there is no way for survivors to challenge that decision.
But the UN’s Salgado disputes this, and says that if new information is presented, “We will analyse it and re-open an investigation.
“Our Conduct and Discipline Unit at headquarters and teams in the field have put in place a series of tools for victims or complainants to come forth at any time, whether it is by phone, email, in person or through confidential community-based complaint mechanisms established in host communities in partnership with local stakeholders,” he says.
But an internal UN report published in June 2017 showed that an audit of the conduct and discipline function of the UN Mission in CAR, between September 2014 and October 2016, revealed that the mission’s systems to tackle sexual exploitation and abuse were in disarray.
The report by the Office of Internal Oversight Services found that the mission had yet to finalise a communications strategy geared towards reaching survivors of abuse and exploitation and that it had yet to implement a reliable mechanism for tracking compliance with training requirements. Around 57 percent of military personnel had not attended mandatory training on standards of conduct, it revealed.
“There was an unmitigated risk that mission personnel were not fully aware of the UN standards of conduct against sexual exploitation and abuse and did not conduct themselves accordingly,” the report stated.
Although Salgado told Al Jazeera that identifying mitigating factors and risks of misconduct “was something the UN missions do regularly”, the OIOS report on the UN Mission in CAR found that it had carried out risk assessments at only 19 of the 37 UN bases in the country.
According to the UN’s data, many cases across all UN missions remain “pending”.
Since 2015, there have been 209 accusations across all UN peacekeeping missions. These involve 346 peacekeepers, both military and civilian personnel, and 388 survivors, including 171 children. According to UN data that tracks the status of allegations per mission, 110 allegations across all missions remain unresolved since 2015.
In one “pending” case, 19 soldiers from Gabon are alleged to have raped 67 people, including 36 children between 2014 and 2015 in the Central African Republic.
In some of the cases that have been acted upon, punitive action has been minimal.
In one case, the UN found that there was sufficient evidence that a Cameroonian police officer had engaged in at least one incident of sexual exploitation in Haiti in 2009. In 2015, he was repatriated, but Cameroon has yet to conclude the case and he has not been jailed.
In another, a soldier from the Congo Republic who was found guilty of “exploitative sexual relations” was repatriated by the UN and jailed by his government for 15 days.
A Senegalese soldier found guilty of raping a child in the Ivory Coast in August 2016, was repatriated and has yet to be prosecuted in his home country.
Responding to these numbers, M Atul Khare, under-secretary general for the United Nations Department of Field Support, told Al Jazeera that the UN was “well aware of the shortcomings in the system”.
But, he added: “Our partnership with member states, to hold perpetrators accountable in cases involving military personnel, is seeing results.”
The UN’s Salgado told Al Jazeera: “Over the last two years, we have seen an increase in the response rate by member states, up to 92 percent. We have also seen in the last two years, troop-contributing countries imposing harsher punishments as national laws allow.”
The governments of Senegal, the Congo Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Cameroon did not reply to repeated requests for comment on these cases.
Al Jazeera also repeatedly reached out to the governments of Morocco and South Africa for comment on unresolved cases involving their troops but received no reply.
In response to questions about the ongoing case of eight Uruguayan peacekeepers accused of sexually exploiting two women in the Democratic Republic of Congo in March 2017, Ambassador Elbio Rosselli, the permanent representative of Uruguay to the UN, told Al Jazeera that his government “has been moving tirelessly in this field by taking several measures to tackle sexual exploitation and abuse” and that “tackling SEA [sexual exploitation and abuse] was a high priority” for his government.
Roselli said that previous cases had usually been concluded within two to three months.
The UN has not been forthcoming, and there is a 'whatever happens in Africa, stays in Africa' approach; I am constantly torn between the scourge and the impression that the majority are not doing this
But even then questions remain over whether justice was served.
In 2011, five Uruguayan peacekeepers gang-raped a Haitian teenager and recorded the attack on their phones. Although the Uruguayan president apologised for the incident following a public outcry, when the case went to court, four out of the five soldiers were found guilty of “private violence” instead of rape. They were subsequently sentenced to two years and one month in prison.
The fifth soldier was acquitted.
So, can it be stopped?
On March 9, 2017, the UN secretary-general, Antonio Guterres, released a “Special Measures” report that it described as a “new approach to combat sexual exploitation and abuse”.
But Aids Free World, which has repeatedly urged the creation of an independent body responsible for investigating crimes committed by the UN, argues that to allow the UN to continue policing itself will lead nowhere.
When asked if the UN is able to investigate itself, Salgado told Al Jazeera that “this is a question for the member states who make up the rules of the General Assembly.”
Meanwhile, Henry says she struggles to reconcile the reports of everyday abuse with the fact that many peacekeepers try to make life better for the host population.
“The UN has not been forthcoming, and there is a ‘whatever happens in Africa, stays in Africa’ approach; I am constantly torn between the scourge and the impression that the majority are not doing this.”
But ultimately, Donovan says, it comes down to accountability.
UN troops need to know that they will be held accountable for their actions, she says. “These are the rules, the recommendations. If you commit a crime, you will be prosecuted. And you will go to jail. This is the only way.”
Maria Kalichi* was 17 when she was attacked by a peacekeeper near her home in Port-au-Prince. When it was over, he put her in a car and dropped her off by the side of a road. For weeks, Kalichi didn’t tell anyone what had happened. Then she realised she was pregnant. She told her mother but did not report the rape to the UN. Her son is now four years old.
“I want justice by finding the person who did this. I want to hear what he has to say to me … I am walking around the streets feeling destitute because of the UN,” she says.
Source: Al Jazeera
*Name changed to protect identity
There are currently 4,971 peacekeepers in Haiti. Since 2015, there have been 18 accusations of sexual abuse or assault. The allegations concern some 20 UN peacekeepers and 16 survivors. To date, none of the accused has been jailed.
Follow Azad Essa on Twitter: @AzadEssa