Human Rights

UN peacekeeping and rape: getting better—or worse?

United Nations headquarters in New York.

United Nations headquarters in New York.  (Reuters)

Even as United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon claims victory in the battle against sexual abuse by members of U.N. peacekeeping missions, a leaked U.N. internal report charges that peacekeepers are likely under-reporting sex crimes and exploitation, taking too long to investigate them, and clinging to a “culture of impunity”  that bolsters sexual misdeeds.

For his part,  according to his own most recent report on the topic, Ban is bolstering “zero tolerance” mainly with promises to get tougher on sexual exploiters in the future—if countries that provide most of the peacekeeping troops let him, and if he can get more money for some new U.N. jobs.

The battle over curbing sexual abuse by U.N. peacekeepers is one of the most sensitive and persistent issues facing the blue-helmeted forces, which have dramatically expanded their scope—and their cost—in the past decade.

There are now 16 U.N. peacekeeping missions operating around the world, involving 123,560 personnel –up from 83,800 in 2005. Their cost for the 12 months ending this  June is about $8.5 billion, vs. some $4.4 billion in 2005. The U.S. pays 28 per cent of that total.

The U.N.’s top leadership has been claiming its renewed intention to wipe out peacekeeper sex abuse since 2003, when then-Secretary General Kofi Annan issued a new administrative order against the practice. A report in 2005 by Jordanian Prince Zeid Ra’ad Zeid Al-Hussein laid out plans to eliminate the problem; the U.N. is still pondering ways to implement many of its recommendations.

In 2012, Secretary General Ban announced his own “enhanced program of action” to combat the scourge, which was mainly followed by another special investigative report by Ban-selected experts—never released to the public.

Ban’s partial victory statement this year comes in an annual report on the sexual abuse issue, prepared in February, but issued in March, which this year says that “new allegations of sexual exploitation or sexual abuse” among all U.N. agencies are down about 16 per cent this year, from 96 in 2014 to 79 in 2013.

About two-thirds of the total—51—are from peacekeeping missions—down from 66 the previous year and the lowest number recorded-- a fact that Ban proclaimed in his current report

A bigger shocker is that about three-quarters of those peacekeeping violations come from just three missions: in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Haiti and South Sudan. Those three countries, along with the U.N. mission in Libya, held the same ugly distinction in 2013-- as they also did in 2012.

Ban’s reasoning this year for the persistence abuse rates in those countries includes the possibility that in South Sudan, peacekeepers were too close to the population they were there to protect, after many South  Sudanese “took refuge in or around” peacekeepers’ quarters when threatened with sectarian violence.

As for Haiti, where crime and then a devastating earthquake rather than civil war led to the U.N. peacekeeper buildup, high rates of  alleged sex abuse may come in part “because the individuals deployed there feel they are in a more relaxed location, with more emphasis on recreational pleasures and more contexts, such as beaches and urban nightclubs, in which to engage in such recreational activities. “

In other words, U.N. sexual abuse rates were higher when the people peacekeepers are protecting felt more unsafe, or less unsafe.

Ban’s plan to bring down abuses further is the long-awaited follow-up on the “enhanced plan of action” he announced in 2012—which spawned his committee of experts and their not-for-public-consumption report.

CLICK HERE FOR BAN’S REPORT

That report  has been mulled behind closed doors for more than a year, in typical U.N. fashion, by an “inter-departmental and inter-agency working group,” followed by a high-level meeting of top U.N. leaders in January.

What they decided to propose is less than a full crackdown.

Among other things, Ban says he will further fight sexual offenses by developing “a Secretariat-wide communications strategy focused on sexual exploitation and abuse.” It will update how-to guides for public information campaigns that haven’t been updated since 2006.

Ban also intends to develop a mandatory “e-learning program” for peacekeeping personnel and pass on training materials to countries that provide U.N. troops and police, and “requests” that the countries give him back a certificate saying they have delivered the material to their troops.

A bigger problem, Ban admits, is preventing repeat offenders from cycling back into the U.N. system. A Misconduct Tracking System that the U.N. previously touted to help with this doesn’t extend beyond “individually selected” military observers, staff officers and police officers. Measures to cover the masses of military and police personnel are “under development.”

Likewise, a “confidential, effective and efficient means” of allowing victims to report abuse has not even reached the pilot model stage so far.

Ban says he does intend to form “response teams” to speed up investigations that are carried out by the troop-contributing countries themselves—depending on the agreements the U.N. signs with troop-contributing countries—and get another agreement to billet those national investigators with peacekeeping units, rather than have them sent out from home when allegations occur.

As another speed-up measure, Ban says he “intends to adopt” a six-month deadline for investigations into sex-abuse allegations. Currently, they typically drag on for 18 months.

So far as peacekeeping units themselves, Ban’s “intends to pursue vigorously”—meaning ask member states for permission—such ideas as to “ withhold service medals” from units under investigation; hold back premium pay for individuals under investigation; and hold back special fees paid to contributor countries if there is a “documented pattern of non-compliance” in upholding standards of conduct.

He would also hold back some pay for individuals under investigation, and return it if “allegations are not substantiated.”

How that will work out is debatable. In a report two years ago, Ban said that starting with this year’s session of the General Assembly he would start publishing  the countries of origin of  offending peacekeepers along with the numbers of alleged offenses in his annual summaries of the problem. That didn’t happen.

Instead he “expects to further discuss this matter with Member States,” the current  report says. This year, Ban says, he “recommends” that contributor countries create on-site courts martial for alleged offenders, instead of taking them home for justice.

As for those brutalized, Ban says he intends to establish a trust fund “to provide support and assistance to victims, complainants and children born as a result of sexual exploitation and abuse.”

But first he will give jobs to quite a few U.N. personnel to think about it, starting with a working group “to develop terms of reference for the trust fund as well as identify resource implications and funding mechanisms.”  Some of the money would come from fines of disciplined peacekeepers and a confiscated severance pay arrangement for those found guilty of abuse. Member states would have to approve of everything, including the trust fund.

The funds, however, would not go to individual victims as compensation, at least as outlined in Ban’s report. Instead they would be used to bolster “local networks” to “provide support and assistance to victims, complainants and children born as a result of sexual exploitation and abuse. 

In other words, these would be U.N. coordinated services, with a full-time U.N. position created in missions as a “focal point for the prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse.”

Ban also plans to ask member states for money to conduct “studies, with a view to developing proposals for a United Nations-wide policy regarding paternity and child support claims.”

The diffident tone of Ban’s proposed measures stands in stark contrast to the strong language in the internal report of his hand-picked experts, which disappeared into bureaucratic limbo two years ago, until it suddenly turned up last week on the website of a group called AIDS-Free World, which is a project of the left-wing Tides Center.

The experts visited the U.N. missions with the highest rate of sexual offenses between June and August 2013.

In the document they delivered to Ban in November 2013, they noted a U.N. “culture of enforcement avoidance,” a “culture of silence around reporting and discussing cases,” and “an extreme caution with respect to rights of the accused and little accorded to those of the victim.”

“Enforcement of the zero tolerance policy has been hampered,” the document says, “by th fact that the U.N., in fact, does not know the extent of the breach of the rules.”

Among other things, military police on U.N. missions mostly stay around headquarters, and thus do not see offenses in the field. Peacekeepers can come from countries where “sexual objectification and sexual abuse of women may be seen as normal and unobjectionable.” In all four high-crime U.N. missions, “negotiating a price to silence complainants” is often seen as a “win/win” situation.”

In all locations “there was wide concern expressed about the validity of the official number of SEA [sexual exploitation and abuse} allegations,” the report says.  “The numbers and the decline, many suspected, do not accurately reflect the current situation with SEA,” even though the amount of under-reporting “is difficult to determine.”

Atop that, investigations were “extremely slow,” those interested in defending the rights of victims were seen, according to the report, as “troublemakers,” and military investigations have “mostly not been dealt with adequately.”

“The preoccupation of all systems put in please for SEA,” the report concludes, “is more focused on U.N. personnel than on victims.” Even officials who have admitted to acts of abuse are “are seen to freely move and work” in missions, before and after investigations.

The report recommends “strong action” against accused violators as a form of deterrence, establishing investigative units in missions with the power to test DNA (a re, better police deployment, and “robust” assistance for victims, among other things, along with the recruitment of “only highly trained military personnel” for peacekeeping missions.

CLICK HERE FOR THE EXPERTS REPORT

“There is a sense here that the system doesn’t work,” observes Brett Schaefer, a U.N. expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation. Nor is he optimistic that peacekeeping countries will see much incentive to improve the situation.

“The U.N. pays the country, not the peacekeepers,” Schaefer added. “I have no idea how much is actually reaching the individual soldiers. The countries making money from peacekeeping have no incentive to report abuses.”

Elizabeth Defeis, a law professor at New Jersey’s Seton Hall Law School and author of a 2008 study on improving peacekeeper practices, is kinder to the U.N. “I think a lot has been accomplished. The numbers are going down,” she told Fox News, “even though most of the reforms are in the future.”

“The trick is how to keep the momentum going,” she added.

Ban’s bland report, compared to his own experts’ burning concerns, only underlines that point.

As a U.N. spokesman told Fox News: “Each proposal will require, to differing degrees, consultation and engagement with internal and external stakeholders, including Member States.”

“The Secretariat remains committed to operationalizing initiatives as quickly as possible, and will also need to monitor new initiatives in their early stages in order to make necessary adjustments. “

George Russell is editor-at-large of Fox News and can be found on Twitter:  @GeorgeRussell  or on Facebook.com/George Russell

George Russell is editor-at-large of Fox News and can be found on Twitter: @GeorgeRussell or on Facebook.com/GeorgeRussell