His blue helmet indicated his mission was to protect, but Amnesty International reported that the U.N. peacekeeper dragged a 12-year-old girl out of her house in the Central African Republic and raped her.
This incident is one of the most recent in a stream of allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation against peacekeepers that have prompted louder calls for reform and an end to what many see as impunity for peacekeepers, even for those accused of the most severe crimes.
Demands for accountability are coming from all angles, even from within the United Nations. In a statement to the Security Council last month, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon called sexual misconduct by peacekeepers “a cancer in our system.” He said, “Too few cases are prosecuted. Too often, justice is denied.”
All the same, countries contributing troops to the U.N. forces argue that it is the unwillingness of a few countries to take action against transgressions that has hurt the image of all peacekeepers and undermined the mandates of all peacekeeping missions.
These tensions will complicate the summit on peacekeeping set for Sept. 28, on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly General Debate. The number of U.N. peacekeepers is already at a historic high; there are currently 16 U.N. peacekeeping operations with almost 124,000 personnel from 122 countries. President Barack Obama plans to ask world leaders to help further boost peacekeeping efforts during the summit, which he is co-hosting with Bangladesh, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Indonesia, the Netherlands, Japan and Uruguay.
Under the current system, the U.N. can repatriate troops accused of misconduct, but no more. Only the countries of origin of these troops can take legal action against their uniformed personnel. That can result in what Seth Earn of the Code Blue campaign called “de facto immunity.” Code Blue was created specifically to demand more accountability for peacekeepers accused of sexual exploitation and abuse.
Reports of sexual misconduct by U.N. peacekeepers are not new. There were allegations of misconduct in the 1990s and the U.N. has had a zero-tolerance policy against sexual exploitation and abuse in place for a decade. Although the number of reported cases has decreased, Sarah Taylor of Human Rights Watch argued, “we don’t know what that number actually means. … One allegation can have multiple perpetrators and multiple victims.” Stressing the need for increasing transparency in the reporting of sexual abuse, she added, “We don’t know just how widespread the problem is.”
Many of the recent allegations are against peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic known as Minusca, where over 11,000 are on the ground. The U.N. reported that it had received 61 allegations of misconduct against Minusca peacekeepers, including 13 of sexual exploitation and abuse. This prompted Ban Ki Moon to take the unprecedented step of asking for the resignation of General Babacar Gaye, the head of the Minusca mission.
Troop-contributing countries insist that they do take such allegations seriously and take firm action in cases of misconduct. Brig. Gen. AKM Akhtaruzzaman, defense adviser in Bangladesh’s mission to the U.N., said the Bangladeshi government has “checks and balances at every level.” Col. Naseer Shahzad, military and police adviser at Pakistan’s U.N. mission, said that the Pakistani government also takes strict action in cases of such allegations, ranging from discharging troops from service to imprisonment. He added that the Pakistani military screens troops carefully before sending them on peacekeeping missions. “We select those individuals who have no history of any discipline violation,” he said. Brig. Gen. Degife Bedi Doggaya, the military adviser to Ethiopia’s U.N. mission said that his country also doesn’t deploy any individual even suspected of misconduct. “If you’re violating human rights, how can you bring peace in the society? You cannot,” he said.
Representatives of all three countries point out that despite being among the top four troop-contributing countries and having thousands of peacekeepers participating in missions each year, charges of misconduct against their troops are few. Though Nabeel Munir, deputy permanent representative of Pakistan’s mission agreed with Ban’s statement that “even one incident is one too many.”
Representatives of troop-contributing countries also say that it is in their interest to investigate and punish those found guilty of misconduct. “It tarnishes the image of the country,” Shahzad said, “besides tarnishing the image of peacekeepers.”
Others argue that the fear of tarnishing their own country’s image would discourage countries from taking action against their troops. “This is a highly political issue that touches the country’s reputation,” said Stephen Nzita, political activist and chancellor of Université Chrétienne Internationale in the Democratic Republic of Congo, home to the largest U.N. peacekeeping mission. To avoid a conflict of interest, he suggested that the U.N. establish an investigative board made up of independent experts. “I am not lobbying for a transfer of power on troops’ misconduct,” he said, “rather an informed second opinion by experts.”
Richard Bennett of Amnesty International said that countries should continue to have legal jurisdiction over their own troops, provided they make absolute commitments to accountability; if countries refuse or do not take action against misconduct, they should be dropped from peacekeeping. Akhtaruzzaman also said if the U.N. is more selective in its acceptance of peacekeeping troops, abuse could be minimized. “While selecting the troop-contributing countries, the U.N. can always be mindful of… their reputation, their procedures.”
Earn of Code Blue argues more is needed than just better screening. He argues that those accused should be tried in the country where the crime is committed. But a concern that troop-contributing countries and human rights groups share is that the quest for justice for victims should not compromise due process for the accused. Many of the countries that host peacekeepers are unstable and their judicial systems have been broken down by conflict. Taylor, of Human Rights Watch, said, “In addition to protection and support for victims, we also think it is incredibly important to have a fair trial.”
Earn suggests that if the host country cannot hold a trial, other options should be considered, such as special courts or an international tribunal. “There should be an investigation that isn’t run by the employer of the perpetrator,” Earn said. Munir disagreed with the idea that the judiciary of the troops’ country of origin cannot carry out a fair trial. He also argued that an independent tribunal in a third country could result in numerous legal and logistical complications.
There is also concern that such a move would make countries less willing to contribute peacekeeping troops. Bennett cautions that states would consider it “an imposition on their sovereignty.” Akhtaruzzaman also said it may not be fair for the U.N. or another body to take over the legal procedure. “This is all about confidence, trust and partnership with the U.N.,” he added. Shahzad agreed. He said that taking legal procedures away from the troop-contributing country would have political and diplomatic implications. “It means you don’t trust the country.”
Despite assurances of accountability from troop-contributing countries, demands for more transparency and accountability are increasing. Amnesty recommends that the secretary general name the countries whose peacekeepers are accused of misconduct and provide details of the status of the criminal investigations and penalties imposed. Such transparency would reassure host countries that their citizens do not have to fear peacekeepers. States whose troops are responsible for abuse would be identified, and other contributing countries would rest assured that their peacekeepers would not all be tarred by the same brush.
Zehra Rehman is an M.A. candidate of International Relations and Journalism at NYU