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World Powers Bolster Punishments Against U.N. Sex Abusers

World Powers Bolster Punishments Against U.N. Sex Abusers

Rocked by rapes and exploitation by peacekeepers in the Central African Republic, the U.N. Security Council agreed Friday to take tougher disciplinary action against U.N. personnel who commit sex crimes. The new resolution, which was drafted by the United States, also threatened to send home entire peacekeeping contingents if their governments fail to hold sex offenders in their ranks accountable.

The vote ended weeks of sometimes tumultuous negotiations between Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and representatives of developing nations that provide the vast majority of troops to U.N. peacekeeping missions.

In a final show of protest before the vote was cast, Egypt sought to weaken the U.N. threat to repatriate foreign peacekeepers who commit sex crimes. Egypt’s amendment — which drew support from four other nations — failed to muster the nine votes required for approval by the 15-nation council.

The final resolution was adopted by a 14-0 vote. Egypt, an influential troop contributor, abstained on the grounds that it would unfairly punish entire foreign contingents for the alleged crimes of a few. By contrast, Power hailed the plan as a victory that could deliver justice to victims of abuse by the very U.N. peacekeepers who are charged with protecting them.

The Security Council’s action followed recent steps by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to confront a lingering problem that has severely damaged the reputation of the world body’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning troops. Ban recently fired his former U.N. representative in the Central African Republic for failing to act strenuously enough to confront sexual abuses by U.N. personnel. And for the first time, he recently singled out governments whose citizens allegedly sexually abuse civilians while serving the United Nations.

But the effort echoed earlier U.N. campaigns to stamp out sexual exploitation, from Bosnia to Haiti, that began with a burst of energy and good intentions but ended in failure.

More than a decade ago, Jane Holl Lute, then a senior U.N. peacekeeping official, sought to assure the U.S. Congress that the world body was truly committed to eradicating an epidemic of sexual abuse by its peacekeepers. But she left her post in 2009, and her pledge remains unfulfilled.

“The blue helmet has become black and blue through self-inflicted wounds,” Lute told lawmakers in March 2005, when she headed a U.N. task force addressing sexual crimes by peacekeepers. “We will not sit still until the luster of that blue helmet is restored.”

Lute later was tapped as deputy secretary at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. But recently, Ban asked her to return to the U.N. to head up a push for peacekeeping reforms.

Lute — who only began her work less than two weeks ago — was unavailable to comment on her new role. She is not expected to produce a new proposal for reforming U.N. policy on sexual exploitation until early next year, after Ban leaves office.

But in adopting its resolution Friday, the Security Council signaled its intent to confront the sexual abuse crisis.

Sex abuse scandals have dogged the United Nations since the early 1990s, when U.N. blue helmets in Cambodia were accused of molesting girls. At the time, the U.N.’s top envoy in Cambodia, Yasushi Akashi, downplayed the severity of abuses, saying, “Boys will be boys.”

Human rights investigators and journalists documented widespread abuses in 2001 in Kosovo and Bosnia, where U.N. police operated brothels and trafficked women from Eastern Europe into prostitution. The abuses served as a backdrop for the 2010 Hollywood film The Whistleblower, starring Rachel Weisz as Kathryn Bolkovac, the real-life U.N. cop from Nebraska who revealed the scandal.

That scandal fueled calls for reform. But it did not deter others. In 2004, the U.N. peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo was rocked by allegations that peacekeepers from Morocco, Nepal, and Pakistan sexually abused civilians, then threatened to retaliate against U.N. investigators probing the charges. An internal report at the time documented 68 cases of rape, prostitution, and pedophilia.

The Congo episode led to the most ambitious bureaucratic effort to halt abuses. In July 2004, then-U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan appointed Jordan’s then-U.N. ambassador, Prince Zeid Raad al-Hussein, to advise him on sexual abuse in U.N. missions. Zeid, who had served as a U.N. political officer in the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, led a major review of abuses by U.N. blue helmets.

The following year, Zeid published a far-reaching report calling for “strict disciplinary accountability” for sex offenders and their managers and commanders. It also proposed the creation of on-site courts-martial to ensure military lawyers could quickly prosecute sex offenders before the evidence was lost. But states with troops in U.N. peacekeeping missions rejected many of Zeid’s recommendations, including the call for courts-martial.

“There are few examples of states standing up to meet their responsibilities in respect of sexual exploitation and abuse, ” Zeid, who is currently U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said Thursday. “The U.N. is not a sovereign body, and cannot exercise criminal jurisdiction…Only the member states can act to end impunity for criminal offenses, including sexual abuse, that have been comitted by their nationals who work for the U.N.”

Since then, the U.N. has been hit by waves of sex abuse scandals stretching from the Central African Republic to Haiti. In the past year alone, there have been 69 allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse against U.N. personnel in nine peacekeeping missions. More than half were in U.N. missions in the Central African Republic and Congo.

Last month, the U.N. envoy to the Central African Republic, Parfait Onanga-Anyanga, told the Washington Post that the reported cases of sexual exploitation there may simply be the “tip of the iceberg.”

“Horrific allegations against peacekeepers have surfaced almost every year for over two decades,” British Ambassador to the U.N. Matthew Rycroft said after Friday’s vote. “In Bosnia, in Cote d’Ivoire, in Haiti, in the Democratic Republic of [the] Congo, and now in the Central African Republic.”

“Today, I hope that finally we have turned the page and begun to make amends,” Rycroft said.

But minutes before the planned Security Council vote, Egypt’s U.N. ambassador, Amr Abdellatif Aboulatta, objected to the U.S. plan giving the world body more power to hold offenders accountable.

Aboulatta’s amendment would have severely weakened the U.S. text by requiring the U.N. to establish three conditions before ejecting troops from a peacekeeping mission: Nations would have to fail to prove that they had investigated allegations of sexual abuse against personnel, punished those found guilty, and informed the U.N. chief of steps taken to hold the abusers responsible.

The U.S. approach, he said, amounts to “collective punishment against hundreds of peacekeeping personnel. This would doubtlessly have severe and negative impact on the morale of these personnel” — as well as damage their governments’ national honor.

Egypt’s proposal was backed by Angola, China, Russia, and Venezuela. Senegal, a major troop contributor, abstained.

But Power hit back, saying the Egyptian amendment would “undermine” U.N. efforts to hold sex offenders accountable for their crimes. She said Egypt’s proposal would have imposed no cost on peacekeepers or their governments if they failed to act on abuses.

“This undermines the purpose of this resolution, which is to get countries to respond to credible allegations against their personnel, to change the system that isn’t working,” Power said.

She also voiced exasperation over U.N. failures — and those of its member states — to embrace policies forceful enough to remove what she called “the cancer of sexual exploitation and abuse against people who trust the U.N. flag.”

Photo credit: Shaul Schwarz/Getty Images