It has emerged that a UN senior humanitarian aid worker has been suspended for leaking an internal report on child abuse committed by UN peacekeepers in the Central African Republic (CAR).
The details that emerge from the report, Sexual Abuse on Children by International Armed Forces, show that once again UN peacekeepers have abused their position and power to prey on the most vulnerable individuals in the most horrific circumstances.
Echoing previous events in Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (among others), the report finds that children displaced by the war – some as young as nine years old – were apparently raped and molested by peacekeepers in return for UN food hand-outs.
The allegations date back to 2014, when the CAR peacekeeping mission was being set up – and it’s clear from the report that the UN has knowledge of the abuses taking place, but has done nothing so far to hold the peacekeepers who committed those crimes accountable.
In 1999, Kathy Bolkovac blew the whistle on UN peacekeepers who had trafficked Ukrainian women into post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina and enslaved them for UN personnel to rape. She was fired soon afterwards, and sued the UN contractor who sacked her for unfair dismissal. Although some peacekeepers were sent home as a result of Bolkovac’s actions, none of them faced criminal charges: instead, the hero was vilified and those who perpetrated the abuses walked away unscathed.
The news of the CAR report makes it clear that nothing has changed. Despite years of internal and external investigations, reports and recommendations about the heinous abuses committed by peacekeepers, the UN still fails to ensure accountability, provide redress for victims, or protection for whistleblowers.
The UN might say that it cannot directly hold peacekeepers who commit abuses accountable. It’s true that the UN does not have a court in which to prosecute those individuals – and nor does it have sufficient authority to investigate allegations – but what it does have is power, both financial and political. That power can and must be used to force states to hold their troops accountable when they commit abuses on UN missions.
As things stand, peacekeepers operate in a culture of impunity. Allegations against them are unlikely to be investigated, they cannot be prosecuted in the country in which they commit the crime and their own states are unlikely ever to hold them accountable for crimes committed on UN missions.
For two decades, evidence has been submitted implying that peacekeepers have raped children, have forced women and girls into prostitution and have demanded sex in exchange for food hand-outs that they were employed to distribute.
But time and again, troops at whom fingers are pointed have been brought home and allowed to quietly re-enter society. Even when evidence is delivered into their home countries' hands, peacekeepers are unlikely to be held to account.
In 2012, for example, Uruguay was shamed into prosecuting five peacekeepers on charges of raping a disabled child in Haiti because overwhelming evidence was presented in the public arena – and yet the case collapsed on a technicality.
This time the peacekeepers are from France, and the aid worker, Anders Kompass, leaked the internal report to French authorities. There is some hope that France will actually prosecute its nationals who committed these heinous abuses, but it should never have fallen to a whistleblower to give this evidence to French prosecutors. The UN had that evidence, but failed to make it public or to pass it on.
When I asked her for comment, Aids-Free World’s Paula Donovan said her organisation “is calling for the United Nations and its agencies, at all levels, to be subjected to an immediate, thorough, and entirely independent investigation” into sexual abuse committed by its personnel.
It will take nothing less. The UN must be serious about doing no harm when entering the most fragile and vulnerable countries in the world. And the only way to do that is to end the culture of impunity that lets peacekeepers know they can get away with horrific abuses as long as they’re wearing their blue helmets.
This article originally stated that the report had been leaked to the advocacy group Aids-Free World. This was inaccurate, and has been corrected.
Rosa Freedman receives funding from the Biritish Academy and the Society of Legal Scholars.
Authors: The Conversation