As France Suspends Soldiers for Child Sexual Abuse, Will UN Tackle Impunity for Western Peacekeepers?
July 2, 2015
In the latest allegations of child sex abuse by Western troops in the countries they are supposed to be protecting, France has suspended two soldiers accused of sexually abusing two children in Burkina Faso. The soldiers reportedly filmed themselves abusing one of the victims, a five-year-old girl. The suspension of the French soldiers comes weeks after it emerged the U.N. failed to investigate allegations of sexual exploitation of children by French troops in the Central African Republic. Even after the exploitation was brought to the attention of senior U.N. officials, the U.N. never reported it to French authorities — nor did it do anything to immediately stop the abuse. A forthcoming report by the U.N.’s Office of Internal Oversight Services says peacekeepers frequently engage in "transactional sex," forcing impoverished citizens to perform sexual acts in exchange for food and medication. We are joined by Paula Donovan, co-director of AIDS-Free World. Her group has launched the Code Blue campaign, which seeks to end the sexual exploitation and abuse by United Nations military and nonmilitary peacekeeping personnel.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to new allegations of child sex abuse by Western troops in countries they’re supposed to be protecting. France has suspended two soldiers accused of sexually abusing two children in Burkina Faso after the soldiers reportedly filmed themselves abusing one of the victims, a five-year-old girl. The incident apparently came to light after her father discovered the footage.
The suspension of the French soldiers comes weeks after it emerged the U.N. failed to investigate allegations of sexual exploitation of children by French troops in the Central African Republic. Even after the exploitation was brought to the attention of senior U.N. officials, the U.N. never reported it to French authorities, nor did it do anything to immediately stop the abuse.
The incidents in Burkina Faso and Central African Republic are the most high-profile to date in a growing controversy surrounding peacekeepers’ conduct worldwide. A forthcoming report by the U.N.’s Office of Internal Oversight Services says peacekeepers frequently engage in "transactional sex," forcing impoverished citizens to perform sexual acts in exchange for food and medication.
For more, we go to Boston, where we’re joined by Paula Donovan, co-director of AIDS-Free World. Her group has launched the Code Blue campaign, which seeks to end the sexual exploitation and abuse by U.N. military and nonmilitary peacekeeping personnel.
Paula, welcome back to Democracy Now! Talk about this latest revelation in Burkina Faso and what it means.
PAULA DONOVAN: What it means, Amy, is that this problem is pervasive. Wherever there are foreign troops that are ostensibly protecting the most vulnerable civilians on Earth, this problem of sexual abuse and sexual exploitation is simply rampant. So whether they’re U.N. peacekeepers or whether they’re authorized under their own governments to be working in foreign countries, sexual exploitation and abuse is an absolute pandemic. And it’s not being addressed or even reported by the United Nations to the Security Council and governments that could intervene together, collectively, to stop this horrendous problem.
AMY GOODMAN: Earlier this month, a U.N. panel recommended sweeping changes to the world body’s peacekeeping operations worldwide. The report came amidst revelations of sexual abuses and exploitation by U.N. forces in countries like Haiti, Liberia, as well asCAR, the Central African Republic. The panel chair, the former president and prime minister of East Timor, actually, José Ramos-Horta, said there must be zero tolerance for such crimes.
JOSÉ RAMOS-HORTA: This is what has to be very clear: You commit a barbarity, you have no protection whatsoever. You are subject to the laws of the country where you are operating. You know, he cannot hide under the United Nations’ roof.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Paula Donovan, does that satisfy you?
PAULA DONOVAN: It satisfies me certainly that President Ramos-Horta made that declaration. Unfortunately, the entire panel did not agree with that consensus, so President Ramos-Horta had to speak unilaterally as the chair and make that strong recommendation that the immunity that’s provided to both the military peacekeepers who are operating in foreign countries and, even more importantly, to the United Nations civilian personnel who are—who exist in all these peacekeeping countries is simply an obstacle to justice. Justice can’t be served as long as there’s one form of investigation and prosecution for anyone affiliated with the United Nations and another for the other billions of us around the world.
AMY GOODMAN: So talk about the responsibility of the United Nations when it comes, for example, in Burkina Faso, to the French peacekeepers that are there. What’s the relationship? And then, what about the French government suspending these two soldiers?
PAULA DONOVAN: Well, there are three categories, essentially, of foreign soldiers who operate in countries, mostly in Africa, and around the world. The French soldiers, in this instance, in Burkina Faso, were there through an agreement between their country and Burkina Faso to deal with anti-terrorism. And that wasn’t under the mandate of the United Nations, although they would certainly cooperate with United Nations peacekeepers on the ground. And then there’s a second category where the U.N. mandates are—rather, authorizes foreign troops to come in, again, with between—with a relationship between the governments. And then the third, and most prevalent, situation is when U.N. Security Council members authorize a peacekeeping mission, and soldiers from around the world are contributed by their countries and go and work together to maintain what’s usually a very fragile peace.
In the Burkina Faso incident, these soldiers who are now suspended—not arrested, which I think is critically important to note, but the soldiers who have been suspended—were there as members of the French military. And France, of course, is a permanent member of the Security Council, as is the United States. The U.S. and France send their troops abroad to work in countries that are in crisis. And, of course, they should be operating where—you know, under any mandate or agreement, they should be operating as though they are the world leaders who are supposed to be setting the standards for the way that soldiers and other forces behave when they ostensibly assist governments that are in trouble.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to comments made by Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire, head of United Nations peacekeepers during the genocide in Rwanda. He spoke in May at the launch of Code Blue, along with you, Paula Donovan—Code Blue, the global campaign to end immunity for U.N. peacekeeper sexual violence.
LT.-GEN. ROMÉO DALLAIRE: So there’s a sense of a culture of silence out there, a culture nearly of impunity, that’s within the construct of many of the contingents, because there’s been no really effective means by holding people accountable and, in fact, prosecuting them in a timely fashion, and in so doing, permitting those who are in authority to influence their own command to impose discipline and to impose legal action against people who commit crimes. And so, removing the impunity from the civilian side is probably the most innovative idea I have heard in a longest time.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Roméo Dallaire, the lieutenant-general who headed the United Nations peacekeeping forces during the genocide in Rwanda. Paula Donovan, if you could follow up on what he is saying?
PAULA DONOVAN: So what Lieutenant-General Dallaire said in support of the Code Blue campaign and its goal of ending immunity for U.N. civilian peacekeeping personnel as the first step is absolutely crucial, if there is a situation—which there is currently—where anyone within the United Nations who is employed by the U.N. feels as though they can act with impunity, do whatever they want when they’re sent to peacekeeping missions, because their employer, rather than the local law enforcement and local judiciary, will intervene if they’re accused of a sex-related crime or a sex-related offense. So if someone who is employed by the United Nations who’s accused of, let’s say, sexually molesting a child isn’t immediately brought into custody by local law enforcement, the United Nations intervenes and says, "This person is covered by immunity under a 1946 convention. We will move in with our investigators and first decide whether we think there’s a credible allegation, whether we think there’s enough evidence, whether we think that a prosecution should proceed." And that doesn’t exist for anyone else in the world, except diplomats and U.N. personnel.
So this creates what Roméo Dallaire was describing as the culture of impunity. When you’ve got the standard-bearers at the top of the United Nations who are operating these peacekeeping missions and instructing soldiers about what they can and cannot do, who are immune from any normal process, at least for the period until their employers decide whether or not they really should be disciplined, whether they should even be arrested and—or accused of these crimes, that makes absolutely no sense. The soldiers throughout the world who are contributed to peacekeeping operations will simply look at the United Nations and say, "You’re saying that you have zero tolerance for sexual exploitation and abuse, but we can see by your actions that you do this all the time and you get away with it, and sometimes your employer spends, you know, upwards of 18 months, sometimes five years, to investigate an accusation, while the accused U.N. employee continues about his business, continues to do his work, and the U.N. decides whether or not they’re going to allow the appropriate authorities to take action." So this just sends a message throughout the world that we are pretending that we have zero tolerance, but in fact we are quite tolerant of these offenses.
AMY GOODMAN: Paula Donovan, I want to thank you for being with us, co-director ofAIDS-Free World, which has launched the Code Blue campaign to seek the end of sexual exploitation and abuse by U.N. military and nonmilitary peacekeeping personnel around the world.