UN peacekeepers and sexual abuse: How legal loopholes, political pressure prevent action against troops

by Shreerupa Mitra-Jha

The grand narrative of making peace often shrouds the embedded injustices and violence that lie secure in the impunity of its purported object. So it is with humanitarian aid, peace keepers in conflict zones, with international aid agencies, and inter-governmental organisations armed with the mandate of serving some of the most vulnerable populations in the world.

The UN announced on 29 January that more allegations have poured in from the Central African Republic (CAR) of sexual abuse and rape of children by foreign military forces. Four of the girls interviewed by a joint UN team said that the alleged perpetrators were attached to contingents operating as part of the European Union operation (EUFOR / CAR). The victims said that they believed some of the abusers were from the Georgian EUFOR contingent.

Representational image. AFP

Representational image. AFP

In a separate finding, a girl and a boy, aged seven and nine respectively, said that they had performed oral sex on French soldiers in CAR in exchange for a bottle of water and a sachet of cookies. The victims said that many from the French Sangari troop had also abused several other children in a similar fashion. The alleged violations took place in a camp for the internally displaced in 2014, but came to light only in the recent weeks.

The official number of allegations of sexual abuse for 2015 involving UN peacekeepers now stands at 22, though the actual cases of violations should be much higher than that.

"What is abundantly clear in the Central African Republic is that it has been rampant. I don’t know the exact number of contingents involved but, I think, its something like ten, both UN and non-UN which is truly shocking," UN spokesman for the High Commissioner for Human Rights Rupert Colville told reporters in Geneva on 29 January.

While the above-mentioned cases relate to non-UN military forces, a number of sexual abuses involving UN peacekeepers, in 2014 and 2015, also emerged in the interviews conducted by this joint UN team.

Peacekeeping in post-conflict areas is typically done through UN peacekeepers — known as Blue Helmets — drawn from troop contributing countries (TCCs) of UN member states and come under the UN’s Department of Peace Keeping Operations (DPKO) and UN Department of Field Support (DFS), or, through non-UN military troops deployed in a state through a UN Security Council resolution who do not come under the purview of DFS/DPKO.

The recent allegations have been for several soldiers and “you don’t know what several is”, Colville said.

Additional cases of sexual abuse involving boys, some as young as nine, between December 2013 and June 2014, had dogged the UN last year involving the same French Sangari troops making international headlines. A judicial process by the French government is underway but no one has been convicted thus far.

Convictions have been "far, far too few", he stated.

“For whatever reason not enough is being done to stop this happening. The message doesn’t seem to have got through,” the UN spokesperson added.

There are, however, obvious reasons why the message — that sexual violations and abuse of some of the most deprived and vulnerable people is not acceptable — has not percolated in official quarters.

The voices of victims and witnesses recklessly fall through cracks in legal jurisdictional gaps, or, get stymied by bureaucratic passing-of-the-buck, or, get subsumed in the overall politics of troop contribution.

Allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation have been a constant horror story since the 1960s involving many contingents spread across almost all nationalities, including India, despite the remarkable work done by the troops in maintaining peace in some of the violently conflict-ridden places of the world. India has been one of the largest — currently, the third largest — TCC to UN peacekeeping missions after Bangladesh and Pakistan. In 2015, India had 7,798 personnel, including 6,718 troops and 1,011 police serving in UN field missions related to peacekeeping. In a rare instance, in 2012, an army major and three other personnel were indicted by an Indian court of inquiry for sexual exploitation while on a peacekeeping mission to Congo — an operation for which India had contributed nearly 5,000 troops.

"We urge the troop contributing countries to do their utmost to investigate and where the evidence suggests then prosecute and do so transparently and swiftly," Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights told a few reporters in Geneva on 1 February.

The UN rights chief said that the primary focus for judicial processes and legal action lay with the TCCs. "It is they who can investigate, they who can prosecute, they who can punish, not the UN, ultimately," Zeid said.

“The focus is always on the UN secretariat [when allegations of sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers come to the fore] and the member states get a pass,” he complained.

The legal boundaries do indeed constrain the UN if it finds troops misbehaving — the maximum it can do is conduct its own internal investigation and refer the findings to the TCC. There is no realistic basis, therefore, of ascertaining the extent to which a TCC carries out investigations of serious allegations of criminal conduct. The low rate of such feedback from states is reflected in the fact that in 2014, of the 62 cases referred to TCCs, the UN had received information on follow-up in a mere five instances.

Moreover, if at all there is some investigation, the TCCs fail to advise the local civilian population or the victims of the steps taken towards delivering justice. "This perception is damaging not only for the individual victim, but also to the relationship between the civilian population and the UN," an independent panel commissioned by the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said in a report in December last year.

In an attempt to ensure better feedback after the fresh round of sexual abuse allegations were revealed in January, threatening the credibility of the UN, Anthony Banbury, the UN Assistant Secretary-General for Field Support, announced on 29 January that a new public website will soon feature a report by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that will for the first time identify the countries and contingents involved in the sexual abuse cases, including providing granular information about individual allegations, the status of investigations, as well as on any disciplinary action taken by the country concerned. The website will be up and running March onwards.

This naming and shaming, the UN hopes, will spur some action on the part of TCCs in combatting this “incredibly difficult scourge”.

"If the UN has been pushing for a response and there has been no communication then reasonably the UN can take a stronger position," Zeid said.

The other issue is the ‘soft threat’ that always seems to work in favour of recalcitrant TCCs — if the UN chivvies too much then the TCCs minimize their participation in peacekeeping missions.

On 31 January, the French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian announced that his government was aiming to wind down Operation Sangaris, the same military operation in CAR that has been the epicenter of the recent sexual abuse allegations, at a time when the African nation is still violently marred by ethnic violence. The declared objective, according to the French politician, was to redeploy their troops to combat jihadist forces in the Middle East and other parts of Africa. However, the timing of the decision does raise the question of whether this was done to avoid further embarrassment of the French government.

To cite an example closer home of political sensitivities clouding out official misdemeanors, the BBC had found after an 18-month long investigation in 2008 that Indian and Pakistani troops, as part of UN mission to the DRC (MONUC), were engaged in illegal smuggling of gold and ivory and were also engaged in giving arms to the militia. The UN denied the allegations but insiders told the BBC that they did not want to alienate the Indian and Pakistani governments—both big contributors of troops for UN missions.

Apart from the inherent political stresses that prevent the UN from needling TCCs and the TCCs from nudging their military troops, the bureaucratic architecture of the UN, like most such structures, incentivises the status quoist and frowns on the whistleblower in such overwrought matters.

Anders Kompass, a Swedish diplomat and the director of field operations for the OHCHR, gave the unredacted report of sexual abuse committed by the French Sangari troops in 2013 and 2014 to French diplomats in Geneva frustrated by the lack of action by the UN and the French. The French got to action thereafter but Kompass was slapped with two UN investigations --for “leaking” an internal UN report-- initiated by Zeid and was put on administrative leave after he refused to resign. Kompass’s case, however, garnered so much international attention as the ‘wronged whistleblower’ that Ban Ki-moon commissioned an independent panel to assess the UN response to the sexual abuse allegations as well as the conduct of Kompass in the whole affair.

The report titled ‘Taking Action on Sexual Exploitation and Abuse by Peacekeepers’ chaired by Canadian judge Marie Deschamps delivered a scathing account in December 2015 revealing how the top UN leadership failed to respond appropriately. Additionally, it exonerated Kompass from any wrong doing.

The initial set of complaints in early 2014 involving the French Sangari troops were “passed from desk to desk, inbox to inbox, across multiple UN offices, with no one willing to take responsibility”, the report stated.

The report supports Kompass’s claim that Kompass informed Flavia Pansieri, former deputy high commissioner for human rights who resigned last year citing a health condition, of his passing on the Sangari notes to the French. Pansieri in turn informed Zeid, who was still new to his job, and was pre-occupied with other matters, and obviously did not consider the matter important then.

The panel found that the head of the UN mission in the CAR, General Babacar Gaye of Senegal, as well as the mission’s director of the UN’s Human Rights and Justice Section (HRJS), Renner Onana, in particular, made a “deliberate decision” not to report the transgressions with any urgency to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid or to inform the French government of the allegations. The HRJS who is the chief of the human rights component for the mission in CAR was pre-occupied with the political sensitivity of the issue and, in fact, “encouraged the SRSG of MINUSCA to keep the allegations quiet”.

Both office holders committed an “abuse of authority”, the independent panel concluded.

Onana, on the other hand, disagreed with the conclusions of the panel and maintained that he had informed senior officials in UN New York and Geneva of the allegations and lamented that his role in the matter was being “inflated” by the panel so senior officials in New York, Geneva and Bangui could be protected for failing to respond.

Similarly, UNICEF and the Special Representative for the Secretary-General for Children in Armed Conflict (SRSG CAAC) “took no steps to inform herself about what was being done by the UN to address the Allegations until the spring of 2015, when the Allegations were being
reported by international media.” The HRJS or UNICEF did not bother to locate the additional child victims who were mentioned in the course of the interviews by a UN Human Right Officer (HRO).

Additionally, even when the French government initiated investigations later, based on the allegations, the UN did not support the legal proceedings, the report found. The UN internal office sent recommendations not to waive the immunity of the HRO for her to take part in the French legal proceedings -- her immunity was waived only in mid-2015 when Ban intervened.

The argument that Kompass was placed under UN investigation because he leaked the unredacted Sangari notes thereby endangering the safety of the children did not hold water. The panel stated that if the UN was serious about the allegations then it would have taken urgent action to protect the children when their identities were revealed back in August 2014.

Though Zeid had not abused authority in the CAR matter but the three-member panel observed that the “High Commissioner demonstrated a single-minded determination to pursue an investigation into the Director’s [Kompass’s] conduct.

“Personal motivations, why would I? The whole thing is so twisted in a context. Why would Navi Pillay [former UN human rights chief] want to defend a contingent or others in the CAR or why would I want to cover up when I have a track record?” Zeid stated exasperatedly to reporters on February 1 when asked by a journalist to respond to the panel’s statement.

Zeid, ironically, had authored a report in 2005 on addressing the problem of sexual violations by UN and non-UN troops in peacekeeping missions and was former UNSG Kofi Annan’s Adviser on the matter. A decade later the same travesties of justice would come to assail his office and him.

However, the problem of impunity in the face of abuse thrives not only with military forces but also with UN civilians.

“The CAR panel only dealt with the military, not the police, not the civilians, only the military suggestive as if only the military commit these violations,” Zeid stated.

One of the more well-known cases of exploitation of refugee children in West Africa involving UN agencies (including UNHCR and WFP) and the UN mission in Sierra Leone (UNASMIL) had surfaced in 2002. Based on the findings of a joint study by UNHCR and Save the Children-UK, the organizations called out to the UN for further investigations against 42 agencies involving 67 individuals. However, a UN investigation team concluded that findings of the study were “misleading and untrue”.

“The other thing one should never forget — yes, sexual abuses are absolutely horrific but they usually point to something else that is happening in the Mission and you find many, many other violations of non-sexual nature. And this is some sort of a marker — if you find that a minor is being raped, then you probably need to look very closely and you will find a whole host of other abuses that don’t maybe reach the limelight. It’s a complete breakdown of discipline,” the UN rights chief observed.

Prosecution of abuses and misdemeanours by civilians also reels from the same burden of jurisdictional latitude as with military troops. Some countries cannot prosecute citizens serving in the jurisdiction of another country where the crime has been committed. On the other hand, host countries where peacekeepers and humanitarian aid workers are stationed have such broken systems that any meaningful investigation and prosecution is rendered unlikely.

“The most the UN can do is say ‘thank you very much’, slap on the wrist, administrative investigation has been conducted and you are expelled from the UN. But if you have been raping young girls and young boys and you go home and nothing happens to you, it’s appalling,” Zeid said highlighting the glaring gap in holding perpetrators accountable.

“If the member-states are serious about this they have to pass this draft convention on criminal accountability [of UN officials and experts in missions] in New York—its been stuck there for so many years,” he added.

India, in 2014, aligning itself with the Non-Aligned Movement countries’ position had frowned upon such a convention. It had stated that "dealing with the wrongdoings of United Nations officials or experts on mission did not require an international convention" and that Indian experts or officials on missions abroad were anyway punishable by Indian courts.

Will the nationalities of officials from UN agencies involved in sexual misconduct feature on Ban’s website? “I hope so,” the UN human rights chief said.

“Whoever’s going to report [wrongdoings] up the [UN or non-UN military] chain is going to be censured, may lose pay, may lose promotion. In other words, the disincentives for doing the right thing are extremely high. Correspondingly, you don’t have enough incentives,” Zeid stated succinctly.

Anders Kompass, after being exonerated by both the CAR panel as well as the internal UN investigation, announced his resignation last week.

“I had to stay because I wanted to see this through. But now that it’s over, it keeps being very difficult for me. No one has said anything to me, no one has apologised to me,” Kompass told the Guardian.

The costs have, indeed, been high for him.

Updated Date: Feb 04, 2016 16:07 PM

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