US Ambassador Samantha Power: "Accountability is Essential"

Ambassador Samantha Power, the United States Permanent Representative to the United Nations, recently delivered a powerful statement on ending impunity for sexual exploitation and abuse by UN peacekeeping personnel, highlighting the need for "victims and their communities to know that justice is being served." The remarks formed part of a speech on Effective Peacekeeping in the 21st Century at the Indian Council for World Affairs (ICWA) in New Delhi, India on November 20, 2015. The excerpt: 

Now, a third key to peacekeepers’ success in challenging new environments is maintaining their legitimacy and the faith, and trust, and confidence of the local population. So here, let me state the obvious: peacekeepers must not abuse civilians. The world has been justifiably sickened and outraged by one allegation after another of sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeepers. The irony here is as striking as it is tragic: those trusted with being protectors becoming perpetrators. In one alleged incident in August of this year, a 12-year-old girl said she was hiding in the bathroom of her family’s home in Bangui – the capital of the Central African Republic – when UN police officers came through, conducting a house-by-house search. According to the girl – whose case has been documented and denounced by UNICEF – a man wearing a blue helmet and UN peacekeeping vest found her and dragged her out of the bathroom. “When I cried,” the girl said, “he slapped me hard and put his hand over my mouth.” The man took her outside into the courtyard, she said, groped her, and tore at her clothes. Then, she said, “He threw me to the ground and lay on top of me.”

This is not an isolated allegation. It was reported in August that Médecins Sans Frontières had treated four minors in the Central African, including the 12-year-old girl, who reported sexual abuse by UN peacekeeping forces. In June, two girls under 16 said they had received food and other basic goods in exchange for sex with a UN soldier. And just last week, new allegations emerged in the Central African Republic, where three girls between the ages of 14 and 17 — which is under the minimum age of consent — told a reporter that they had sex with UN peacekeepers months earlier.

Sexual exploitation and abuse has no place in any society. But it is especially abhorrent when committed by those who take advantage of the trust that communities are placing in the United Nations.

According to a report released this year by the UN’s internal oversight body, in more than one-third of the cases of reported sexual abuse by peacekeepers from 2008 to 2013, the victims were children. And these are merely the allegations that we know about. This has to stop.

We commend in this regard UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s efforts to strengthen the implementation of the zero-tolerance policy with respect to such crimes – from bolstering reporting and accountability measures, to pledging to set up an immediate response team to investigate certain cases. But we member states must do our part, as well. We know that we will never be able to fully eliminate sexual exploitation and abuse committed by peacekeepers – or in our societies, for that matter. And we know that punishing those who commit sexual exploitation and abuse – whether the victims are civilians or members of security forces – can be a complex undertaking. The U.S. military itself has long grappled with challenges surrounding these issues, despite significant efforts to address the problem and to try to assist victims. Serving in a multilateral force with a hybrid chain of command – as peacekeepers do – makes this process all the more challenging. And we totally understand that.

But by the same token, we cannot let these crimes to be carried out with impunity – accountability is essential. The governments of police and troops alleged to have committed crimes related to sexual exploitation and abuse must carry out prompt, thorough, and impartial criminal investigations as soon as they learn of these allegations. And those found to have committed such crimes must be punished appropriately. If a troop-contributing country lacks the capacity to conduct these kinds of professional investigations and prosecutions – as some say they do – the United States stands ready to help find the support needed to build that capacity.

Governments also must report back to the United Nations on their investigations into sexual exploitation and abuse.

The UN and its member states need to know that the soldiers and police accused of abusing the privilege of wearing the blue helmet are adequately investigated and, where appropriate, punished. Victims and their communities need to know that justice is being served.

Unfortunately, the opaqueness of the current system makes it virtually impossible to get an accurate sense of whether investigations have even been opened into these allegations. This is a recipe for impunity: We cannot implement a zero-tolerance policy if we do not know whether abuses are being investigated. On the flipside, if peacekeepers who commit sexual exploitation and abuse are firmly punished, others may think twice about committing such crimes. And if victims see that peacekeepers who commit terrible abuses are held accountable, they might be more likely to come forward.

The new contributions announced in September at the summit allow the UN to bring greater urgency to this accountability effort. The UN needs to measure compliance. And it needs to suspend from peacekeeping any country that does not take seriously the responsibility to investigate and, if necessary, to prosecute allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse.

The vast majority of the 91,000 troops and 13,000 police in peacekeeping missions serve honorably. They do not commit sexual abuse, nor do they turn a blind eye to it. And most contributors are serious about prosecuting soldiers and police from their forces who perpetrate these crimes. But these allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse tarnish all peacekeepers. And that is all the more reason why all member states have a stake in stamping out this serious problem.

The full remarks are available on the website of the US Permanent Mission to the UN:

(UN Photo / Mark Garten)