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Sex abuse scandals cast shadow over UN peacekeeping summit

Analysis: Obama to call for more troops from advanced armies, but critics say root of problem is culture of impunity

UNITED NATIONS — President Barack Obama on Monday called on the world’s most advanced militaries to contribute equipment, troops and police to United Nations missions around the world. Some 50 countries — in Latin America, Asia, Europe and elsewhere — made pledges, according to U.N. officials, to create a roster of surplus soldiers that could help redefine peacekeeping.

The extra troops will allow the U.N. to practice more discretion in its selection and deployment of soldiers and police, U.S. officials say, at a time when the institution is coming under criticism for failing to adequately address the issue of sexual abuse by peacekeepers, which frequently goes unpunished.

Allegations of rape and other sexual abuses go back at least two decades and led to the U.N. barring its peacekeepers from buying sex in 2003 and enacting a zero tolerance policy for sexual abuse in 2005. There have been accusations since then, but recent investigations have indicated that the number of reported cases of abuse and rape may be vastly underreported and put unprecedented pressure on the U.N. to take action on the issue.

“Our hope with the summit is to ensure that peacekeeping is as capable as possible by both broadening and deepening the pool of potential contributors to allow us to respond effectively to the [Security] Council’s increasingly challenging assignments,” said Nick Birnback, a spokesman for the U.N. department of peacekeeping.

A May report by the U.N.’s office of internal oversight indicated peacekeepers frequently paid for sex with cash, jewelry, fancy underwear, dresses, perfume, cellphones and other items. A June study by professors at New York University, the University of Chicago and Emory indicated U.N. peacekeepers engaged in transactional sex with as many as 58,000 women and girls in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, from 2003 to 2012. Most of the respondents said they were under the age 18 when they began to have sexual relations with the U.N. personnel.

In April of this year in the Central African Republic, French soldiers were accused of raping young boys in exchange for food and money. The abuse allegedly took place from December 2013 to June 2014.  Though the peacekeepers were not under direct U.N. command, the U.N. has been criticized for being slow to investigate the allegations. Laurent Fabius, France’s foreign minister, said Saturday that if the abuse took place, “such a thing is not permissible in any situation.” 

The latest report implicated U.N. troops in the rape of a 12-year-old girl in August, also in the Central African Republic. According to an investigation by Amnesty International, a soldier in a U.N. uniform raped a girl behind a truck during a search in the capital, Bangui, and slapped her when she cried.

Prosecuting soldiers accused of sexual abuse has proved difficult. The United Nations has more than 125,000 troops, police and civilian peacekeepers stationed in 16 operations worldwide, an all-time high since the first mission in 1948. In recent years the organization has often often struggled to find the necessary troops to deploy.

Most of the funding for these missions comes from the United States, Japan, France and Germany, but none of these countries provide substantial numbers of troops. Instead, the U.N. relies on Bangladesh, Ethiopia, India and other countries from the developing world to provide soldiers and police officers.

In the case of the Central African Republic, the U.N. largely relied on African Union soldiers who were already on the ground when they took over in September 2014. Many of them were poorly equipped and poorly disciplined, according to U.N. officials, factors they said may have contributed to sexual misconduct.

“These countries brought their own skill sets and on-the-ground knowledge, but there are always risks with first-time contributing countries in terms of not knowing U.N. policies and procedures,” said a U.N. official who was not authorized to comment on the matter and asked to remain anonymous.

Current and past U.N. officials say the institution does not have the mandate or ability to enforce discipline across the ranks and that the heart of the blame should lie with member states, which are ultimately responsible for their soldiers. “If the troop contributors are not on board to enforce this particular aspect of discipline to prevent sexual abuse, it will always be a losing battle,” said Jean-Marie Guéhenno, the president and CEO of the International Crisis Group and a former U.N. undersecretary-general for peacekeeping operations.

Governments that accept U.N. troops waive their right to prosecute peacekeepers when they arrive in country. The onus is therefore on the troops’ governments to investigate any allegations of wrongdoing. (U.N. civilian staffers are immune from prosecution under a 1947 international treaty.)

“If they work directly for us, we can fire them. If they are under a national service, we can send them home. But we are not a competent judicial authority. We can no longer arrest them than any authority could,” said the U.N. official.

But these investigations rarely happen, according to Code Blue, an advocacy group that was created to push for more transparency on the issue of sex abuse by U.N. troops. It is calling for an impartial investigation into peacekeeping operations around the globe and to “align the U.N.’s policy of zero tolerance with actual practices on the ground,” said Paula Donovan, who leads Code Blue. “They are supposed to be holding up the gold standard, but they’re not.” She also called for more female peacekeepers, who make up only about 4 percent of the total.

The U.N. has been criticized for closing ranks after allegations of sexual misconduct. In the case of the boys allegedly abused by French peacekeepers, a whistleblower turned the case over to French prosecutors after, he says, the U.N. failed to take action on his reports. The informant, high-ranking human rights official Anders Kompass, was then suspended for breaching protocol.

Donovan also pushed for member states to re-examine the possibility of passing a new international convention to deal with crimes committed by United Nations personnel. She pointed to the Draft Convention on Criminal Accountability of U.N. Officials, which was passed by the General Assembly in 2006 but never adopted. It recommended, among other possibilities, the creation of hybrid U.N. and host country tribunals to try U.N. staff.

Officials at the U.N. say Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon is taking the issue of sexual assault seriously. In April he appointed an independent review panel to examine the U.N.’s response to the sexual abuse reports in the Central African Republic. He then fired the head of the mission there, Babacar Gaye, when new allegations of rape emerged. “I cannot put into words how anguished and angered and ashamed I am by recurrent reports over the years of reports of sex abuse and exploitation by U.N. forces,” Ban said at the time.

He also called for the creation of a common trust fund to support prevention and community outreach and requested the launch of talks with member states aimed at developing a procedure to compensate victims.

In recent months, some governments have also taken more steps to prosecute their soldiers, possibly marking a turning point. India recently punished several of its soldiers accused of sexual abuse in South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. France launched a criminal inquiry into its soldiers in the Central African Republic.

Salil Shetty, Amnesty International’s secretary-general, said better-trained soldiers may not get to the root of the problem, which he believes is a culture of impunity.

“If people feel and know they are not going to get away with this, we’ll have a whole different system,” he said. “If the U.N. can’t ensure accountability on something like sexual violence, how is the U.N. able to talk to anybody else? I think there’s a massive gap and much more to be done.”

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