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UN mum on probes of sex-abuse allegations

UN mum on probes of sex-abuse allegations
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First Published: Sun, Mar 28 2010. 08 38 PM IST

Saviour or threat? UN peacekeepers from India in Congo. In July 2008, a UN body reported finding “prima facie evidence” that Indian peacekeepers had been involved in paying minor girls for sex and cas
Saviour or threat? UN peacekeepers from India in Congo. In July 2008, a UN body reported finding “prima facie evidence” that Indian peacekeepers had been involved in paying minor girls for sex and cas
Updated: Sun, Mar 28 2010. 08 38 PM IST
As the United Nations (UN) worked to restore peace and protect women and children in Africa’s troubled Cote d’Ivoire three years ago, it announced it was investigating “serious allegations of wide-spread sexual exploitation and abuse”. Shockingly, the alleged perpetrators were with the UN—Moroccan troops serving as peacekeepers.
Saviour or threat? UN peacekeepers from India in Congo. In July 2008, a UN body reported finding “prima facie evidence” that Indian peacekeepers had been involved in paying minor girls for sex and casual work. Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images
A confidential probe by the UN and Moroccan investigators turned up evidence that 14 soldiers were involved, according to a person familiar with the matter; DNA analysis showed some of them had fathered children with the victims. But the UN has never disclosed the results of the investigation or whether any of the soldiers were punished. The Moroccan government has stated that no conclusive evidence of abuse was found and that it dropped all charges.
More than six years after the UN implemented a zero-tolerance policy for sexual misconduct by its peacekeepers, it is still struggling to persuade member states to investigate and discipline accused soldiers.
“It’s my biggest headache and heartache, this whole issue,” says Alain Le Roy, who has served as the UN’s under-secretary-general for peacekeeping operations since 2008.
The UN has long been plagued by allegations that some of its peacekeepers committed rape, exploited children or trafficked in arms or minerals. Following a 2004 sexual-abuse scandal involving dozens of peacekeepers in Congo, the UN implemented mandatory training in its code of conduct, heightened enforcement, provided more ways to file complaints and increased assistance to victims.
But interviews and UN documents show the problem continues. Sexually related allegations against UN military forces last year rose 12% to 55; some of the allegations involved minors.
The US government remains so concerned that President Barack Obama raised the issue during a private meeting in New York in September with senior officials of 13 top troop-contributing countries, including Pakistan and Egypt, saying sexual misconduct had marred the reputation of the UN missions, said a diplomat who attended.
“UN peacekeeping is a vitally important way to share the burden of managing a crisis, but when peacekeepers who are supposed to protect innocent civilians engage in sexual exploitation and abuse, it is utterly unacceptable and there needs to be accountability,” says Susan E. Rice, US ambassador to the UN.
Over the past three years, the UN says troop-contributing nations have reported disciplining 75 peacekeepers for sexual misconduct or other offences.
But records show that nations most of the time didn’t even respond when the UN requested information about their investigations or disciplinary actions. Last year, the UN says countries only replied 14 times to 82 requests for information about sexually related investigations or their outcomes.
“There is a natural instinct to basically cover up the whole thing,” says Jordan’s Prince Zeid Ra’ad Zeid Al-Hussein, who authored a harsh report in 2005 on how the UN handled sexual-abuse allegations.
Indeed, the investigative and disciplinary process for accused peacekeepers remains shrouded in secrecy, despite vows by UN officials to make it more open. Although the UN recently began publishing statistics on a website, it still doesn’t detail allegations, specify the number of alleged perpetrators or announce the results of investigations. Part of the problem is that the UN can’t take the lead role in investigating alleged wrongdoing. That responsibility falls with the troop-contributing countries themselves, thanks to a 2007 vote by the UN General Assembly.
“It was quite a coup to impose that,” says Jean-Marie Guehenno, who served as the UN’s head of peacekeeping from 2000 to 2008. He says troop-contributing countries pushed for the change because they opposed having external oversight of their troops. “No army likes that, from any country,” he says.
Nor does the UN publicly criticize countries that don’t cooperate in probes or respond to requests for information. Nicholas Haysom, the top senior political adviser to secretary general Ban Ki-moon, says his boss would like to do so, but his hands are tied because UN member states haven’t endorsed the idea.
Instead, he says, Ban works behind the scenes to gain cooperation. Other UN officials say they fear that if they “name and shame” member states, the countries—which often insist on anonymity—will stop contributing peacekeepers to UN operations. “It’s a dilemma,” says Le Roy. “We need them.”
The UN first began sending armed, neutral peacekeepers to war-torn regions in 1956. Over the years, UN forces have been credited with maintaining peace in many regions, including West Asia, Africa and Cyprus, and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1988.
Today, there are at least 85,000 UN troops in 16 peace operations, with soldiers contributed by 115 nations, most of which come from countries such as Bangladesh, Pakistan and India, many of which are eager to participate in the programme because the UN pays about $1,000 (Rs45,300) per month per soldier.
But the peacekeepers’ reputation also has been sullied over the years by evidence that some soldiers were taking advantage of the very people they were supposed to protect, in places including Kosovo, Cambodia and West Africa. The allegations included sodomy and rape of minors. A 14-year-old girl from Congo told UN investigators in 2004 that a peacekeeper from an unknown country had paid her two eggs to have sex.
It wasn’t until 2003 that the UN implemented detailed rules prohibiting peacekeepers from engaging in sex with minors and prostitutes, and calling for confirmed cases to be referred to troop-contributing countries for criminal prosecution. Initially, the UN had the right to conduct major investigations.
Now, under the rules established by the General Assembly in 2007, the UN may do so only if a country shows an unwillingness or inability to conduct a probe. And even then, the UN’s investigative unit for such matters—the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS)—is thinly staffed and has no authority to discipline soldiers.
OIOS officials say their roughly 60 investigators only have time to probe “priority” cases such as those involving rape of minors. This means that less serious violations such as hiring prostitutes are referred back to the peacekeeping missions, they said.
“The ambition, of course, is to be zero tolerant,” says Inga-Britt Ahlenius, under-secretary general for Internal Oversight Services. “But you’ve to be realistic.”
Guehenno says his experience getting countries to probe and discipline their own soldiers was “very uneven, to be honest”. His successor, Le Roy, suggests little has changed.
The Wall Street Journal reviewed three recent cases of follow-up actions taken by countries—Sri Lanka, Morocco and India—whose peacekeepers were accused of wrongdoing.
The examples range from serious disciplinary action to complete exoneration. In no case has the UN announced the results, even though some of the details were published last year by the US state department in its annual report on human trafficking.
In November 2007, the UN repatriated at least 100 Sri Lankan peacekeepers from Haiti following allegations that some of them, as well as previous Sri Lankan troops, had sexually exploited or abused children. OIOS and a Sri Lankan team had collected evidence, including cellphone text messages, on allegations against Sri Lankan soldiers dating back to 2004.
Soldiers allegedly had sex with at least nine minors, ranging in age from 10 to 16, in and around a UN camp, including in the observation towers and showers, as well as in UN trucks, according to a former UN official familiar with the investigation. The children allegedly were paid as little as 75 cents and sometimes with food, this person said.
A Sri Lankan military court took testimony, including from a senior UN investigator from OIOS, in early 2008. According to the state department, the court found 10 officers and 13 soldiers guilty of sexual misconduct and abuse of children. Two officers were forced out of the military and another soldier was discharged; two others later died in military action. Punishment of the remaining troops had not yet been reported, the state department said.
Although Sri Lanka formally told the UN of its actions in January 2009—making this a success story of sorts—the government has insisted the case remain confidential, according to a person familiar with the matter. Sri Lanka was concerned that the officers and soldiers wouldn’t be able to return safely to their homes if locals learned they had been convicted of sexual abuse of minors, this person said.
In the Moroccan case, OIOS and investigators from Morocco conducted a joint probe in 2007 into allegations that soldiers had sexually exploited women and girls during the UN mission in Cote d’Ivoire. According to three people familiar with the matter, Morocco disciplined a commander over the incidents. But Morocco formally told the state department the investigative team “was unable to find any conclusive evidence of abuse”, according to the department’s annual report in June. No mention was made of any disciplinary action. Morroco’s ambassador to the UN in New York was not available for comment on the case, his secretary said.
Meanwhile, as of December, Morocco still hadn’t told the UN what action it had taken, said a person familiar with the matter.
Peacekeepers from India have been accused several times of wrongdoing in Congo in recent years. In July 2008, OIOS reported finding “prima facie evidence” that Indian peacekeepers had been involved in paying minor Congolese girls for sex and casual work in 2007 and 2008.
In a rare case of naming a troop-contributing country, Ban Ki-moon later issued a statement saying “that such behaviour, if substantiated, is wholly unacceptable and that disciplinary action to the maximum degree permitted by Indian law should be taken as soon as possible”.
He added that he “highly values India’s long-standing and valuable support for United Nations peacekeeping”.
In October, the Hindustan Times reported there was new evidence in the case and quoted an Indian brigade commander, Bipin Rawat, saying that “initial findings confirm” the involvement of some peacekeepers. “We have sent our report to the army headquarters in New Delhi and recommended a thorough probe in view of new evidence.”
In March 2009, the Indian military “exonerated the soldiers after conducting an investigation,” according to the US state department. Rawat, who no longer is posted in Congo, referred questions to his successor, who declined to comment.
Hardeep Singh Puri, India’s ambassador to the UN in New York, said two probes conducted in Congo, including one by the Indian military, “could not establish any wrongdoing”.
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First Published: Sun, Mar 28 2010. 08 38 PM IST