UN peacekeepers are sent to the most war-ravaged countries, ostensibly to help them transition to peace. But some stand accused of committing crimes against the people they are supposed to protect.
According to a recent investigation by the Associated Press, between 2004 and last year, the UN received almost 2000 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 an investigation of UN data, in this four-part series, we navigate the competing accounts to try to answer the question: How did some peacekeepers become predators? In the fourth and final part, we ask if the UN is doing enough to stop its peacekeepers committing abuses.
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 sexual abuse and exploitation committed by peacekeepers and reiterated the importance of ensuring they were investigated and punished.
In 2007, the UN created the Conduct and Discipline Unit (CDU) to deal with misconduct. Allegations are reported to the CDU and Conduct and Discipline Teams (CDT) in the field. The CDT assesses the allegations and refers them to the field mission.
If it involves a UN civilian member, the UN is tasked with investigating it.
A referral is supposed to activate support services for the survivor.
Nicola Dahrendorf, the chief co-ordinator of the CDT at Minusca, the UN mission in the Central African Republic, says 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 (NIO) within five to 10 days, depending on the gravity of the allegation”.
Atul Khare, the undersecretary-general for the UN Department of Field Support, believes the UN is “advancing in the right direction” and that it has displayed greater transparency” over how allegations are investigated.
But activists, like Paula Donovan, co-director of the New York-based NGO Aids Free World, express concern that, by requiring the UN or troop-contributing countries to investigate their 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 says.
Beatrice Lindstrom, a lawyer with the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), a New York NGO that helps survivors of human rights violations pursue cases in court, says if a case makes 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 Olivier Salgado, the spokesperson for the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations, disputes this, and says that if new information is presented, “We will analyse it and reopen an investigation”.
“Our Conduct and Discipline Unit at headquarters and teams in the field have put in place tools for victims or complainants to come forth at any time,” he says.
An internal UN report published in June showed that an audit of the conduct and discipline function of the UN Mission in CAR, between September 2014 and October last year, revealed that the systems to tackle sexual exploitation and abuse were in disarray.
The report by the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) found the mission had yet to finalise a communications strategy geared towards reaching survivors and that it had yet to implement a reliable mechanism for tracking compliance with training requirements. Around 57% of military personnel had not attended mandatory training on standards of conduct, it revealed. “There was an unmitigated risk that mission personnel were not aware of the UN standards of conduct against sexual exploitation and abuse and did not conduct themselves accordingly.”
Although Salgado said identifying mitigating factors and risks of misconduct “was something the UN missions do regularly”, the OIOS report found it had carried out risk assessments at 19 of the 37 UN bases in the country.
It also found Minusca did not have a viable tracking system for solving long-pending cases.
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, 110 allegations across all missions remain unresolved since 2015.
In a pending case, 19 soldiers from Gabon are alleged to have raped 67 people, including 36 children between 2014 and 2015 in CAR.
In some of the cases that have been acted upon, punitive action has been minimal.
In one case, the UN found 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.
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 last year, was repatriated and has yet to be prosecuted in his home country.
M Atul Khare, the under-secretary general for the UN Department of Field Support, said the UN was aware of the shortcomings, adding: “Our partnership with member states, to hold perpetrators accountable in cases involving military personnel, is seeing results.”
The UN’s Salgado said: “Over the last two years, we have seen an increase in the response rate by member states, up to 92%.
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 DRC and Cameroon did not reply to requests for comment. Neither did the governments of Morocco and South Africa when asked about unresolved cases involving their troops.
In response to questions about the case of eight Uruguayan peacekeepers accused of sexually exploiting two women in the DRC in March, ambassador Elbio Rosselli, the permanent representative of Uruguay to the UN, said his government has been taking measures to tackle sexual exploitation and abuse and viewed it as a priority.
Roselli said previous cases had usually been concluded within two to three months.
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 after a public outcry, four out of the five soldiers were found guilty of “private violence” instead of rape.
They were sentenced to two years and a month in prison. The fifth soldier was acquitted.
On March 9, 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 argues that to allow the UN to continue policing itself will lead nowhere.
Meanwhile, researcher and academic Marsha Henry from the Gender Institute at the UK’s London School of Economics, 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.” But ultimately, Donovan says, it comes down to accountability.
Azad Essa is a journalist at Al Jazeera, covering Sub-Saharan Africa