EXCLUSIVE: Bureaucratic red tape, lack of funding and internal consultations mean the zero tolerance campaign touted by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to curb sexual abuse and exploitation by members of the U.N.’s peacekeeping missions is proceeding very slowly, even though U.N. officials say the campaign is a “very high priority.”
Meantime, pressure for more drastic action by the U.N. is continuing to build -- and so is evidence that action is needed.
In the strife-torn Central African Republic (CAR), the front-line medical organization Medecins Sans Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) told Fox News the organization has collected testimony from one underage victim of sexual abuse last year who identified the abuser as a member of “international forces”-- meaning a member of a U.N. or European peacekeeping force.
Francoise Saulnier, the Paris-based head of MSF’s legal department, declined to give further details, citing an MSF policy of protecting the victims of sexual abuse and exploitation.
U.N. forces were installed as a CAR peacekeeping mission in mid-September 2014, taking over from precursor French and African forces.
Overall, Saulnier reports, her organization treated 539 victims of sexual violence, including 118 minors, from the refugee camp near the capital of Bangui between December 2013 and December 2014.
MSF volunteers on the ground in CAR and in other humanitarian crises around the world treat sexual abuse victims for injuries and possible disease, but also collect valuable testimony and evidence, such as DNA, that the U.N. says it wants to gather through new “rapid response teams” for combatting sexual abuse as part of Ban’s zero tolerance policy.
But according to Anthony Banbury, head of the U.N. peacekeepers’ field support division, that rapid response effort is “not resourced right now.” Translation: no money. The U.N. has put “capacity on the ground, but not in the way I fully envisage it,” he added, an oblique reference to a lack actual trained experts with experience in such rapid evidence-gathering.
In response to a specific question from Fox News about beefing up efforts to combat peacekeeper sexual abuse in the CAR, a U.N. peacekeeping spokesman said that two positions had been added to the roster of the peacekeeping “conduct and discipline” team in the local mission’s latest budget -- out of 168 new civilian positions requested overall.
According to the U.N. spokesman, Ban’s Secretariat is “engaged in discussions with a donor with a view to supporting the development of terms of reference of the immediate response teams.” In the meantime, peacekeeping missions are being asked to identify suitable functions which could form part of this team, after which informal arrangements will be proposed to bridge the gap until the formal terms of reference and structure are in place.” How long that will take is unclear.
Among the other “zero tolerance” efforts that won’t happen immediately:
- An e-learning program in multiple languages mandated for all U.N. peacekeeping personnel to raise discipline against sexual abuse and exploitation will only get to the pilot stage by May 2016, according to the U.N. spokesman. How long that stage would last was not mentioned.
- New avenues for victims of alleged sexual crimes or exploitation to air their grievances won’t come soon either. Ban’s office called those the “tip of the spear” in combatting sexual abuse, and announced a “draft sexual exploitation and abuse Complaint Reception Framework” in April 2015. But that merely allows peacekeeping missions to “engage in consultations with mission component offices, the Resident Coordinator, U.N. inter-agency partners, international and local NGOs [non-government organizations], networks on protection from sexual exploitation and abuse, community leaders, and other local partners who provide insights and will be key actors in developing community-based reporting mechanisms.”
- Promised financial penalties against peacekeeping members actually convicted of sexual offenses, including confiscation of vacation pay, are supposed to get to the U.N. General Assembly for approval by next September. But they are “subject to consultation” -- which were left unspecified. Meantime, “a working group is being assembled” now to “develop terms of reference” for a new trust fund that will support U.N.-provided “services” -- not compensation -- to victims of peacekeeping sexual abuse.
Ban’s effort to put new teeth in the U.N.’s “zero tolerance” policy toward sexual offenders -- first unveiled in 2004, and the current target of an “enhanced plan of action” promised by Ban in 2012 --were announced in an annual reporting exercise last February.
That report was almost immediately eclipsed in March by the leaked publication of a special report by a U.N.-commissioned independent panel of experts who examined the worst-offending peacekeeping missions and say they found a “culture of silence,” “enforcement avoidance” and “the appearance of impunity” regarding sexual abuse of civilians.
The document was delivered to the U.N. in November 2013, after the experts conducted investigations the previous summer -- more than half a year after Ban’s enhanced action plan announcement.
The report was then chewed over by an internal working group throughout 2014, and became the basis for his latest proposals after a high-level meeting in January 2015.
“Large, complex international organizations can’t always move at the speed we want,” the U.N.’s Banbury told Fox News by way of explanation for the delays. “We don’t have carte blanche on what to do.”
Nonetheless, Banbury insisted, “there really is a sincere effort going on” to quell sexual exploitation and, he said, “we are looking for every possible way to affect this.”
Among other things, Banbury, who oversees the U.N. peacekeeping’s “conduct and discipline” section, took credit for commissioning the highly critical expert report in the first place, in order to spur action.
He says he has already told peacekeeping missions that they must complete any investigations of sex offenses within six months, a new “zero tolerance” measure promised by Ban -- and a tacit admission that investigations were taking far too long -- and asking them to establish standing task forces, in the words of his press spokesman, to “provide unified advice to leadership on this issue.”
Banbury’s press spokesman also emphasized the urgency attached to the anti-sex-abuse effort by providing Fox News with a copy of a U.N. cable sent to all peacekeeping missions emphasizing the “zero tolerance” policy. The cable underlined that “United Nations personnel should be held fully accountable for any crimes they commit, in accordance with international human rights standards, including due process.”
The cable did not include a time stamp indicating when it was sent and received. The declared intent, however, was to “bring to [peacekeepers’] attention the most recent resolution of the [U.N.] General Assembly” on criminal accountability -- which was adopted on Dec. 9, 2011.
In the three full years since that resolution was adopted, reports by Secretary General Ban’s office noted that 177 allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse were recorded that allegedly involved peacekeeping personnel.
According to the U.N.’s Banbury, however, a “significant drop” in those annual numbers (66 in 2013 vs. 51 in 2014) is a “sign of improvement” due to the “stronger policy mechanism” Secretary General Ban is putting in place.
Then again, maybe not: The number of allegations actually rose by some 10 percent from 60 in 2012, when Ban announced his intention to provide an “enhanced plan of action,” to 2013’s 66. Thus the 2014 dip does not necessarily establish a trend.
Moreover, argues Paula Donovan, co-director of AIDS-Free World, the organization that made public in March the highly critical U.N. experts report on sexual abuse, one of the many loopholes in the U.N.’s statistical catalogue is that one allegation does not always mean one person committing one offense.
“An allegation is simply a report,” she says. “It could include ten perpetrators or ten victims.” U.N. data, she told a press conference last week, where she and a small array of present and former U.N. dignitaries announced the launch of a campaign dubbed Code Blue, is “misleading” and “confusing.”
Code Blue aims to strip legal immunity automatically from any U.N. official accused of sexual abuse or exploitation, in a bid to both speed up the course of justice and prevent evidence from disappearing in the long time it takes investigations to occur. The U.N. opposes the idea, arguing that immunity is rapidly removed from offenders once a case against them is made, and the Code Blue proposal would amount to a violation of due process.
In addition, the Code Blue campaign aims to have the U.N. establish another independent panel of experts “to examine every facet of sexual exploitation and abuse in peacekeeping” -- more or less what Ban says he has already done.