The Guardian: UN criticised for failure to pursue rape allegations against staff

Investigation finds two thirds of internal UN probes into alleged rapes by peacekeepers not passed on to national courts

The Guardian
By Joe Sandler Clarke and Sandra Laville

September 18, 2015—The United Nations investigated and cleared four peacekeepers accused of rape and sexual assault, including the assault of a child, without passing the cases to national authorities, the Guardian has discovered, in a move which poses questions about the way the organisation handles rape allegations made against its staff.

The revelation comes after UN secretary general, Ban Ki-Moon called on countries whose soldiers are responsible for rape and sexual exploitation on peacekeeping missions to stop covering for their crimes and put them on trial. In an interview with the Guardian, Ban said that countries whose troops commit offences should take “greater institutional responsibility” for prosecuting the crimes.

However, in four cases, accusations against peacekeepers were not passed on to the national authorities, with the investigations carried out by an internal UN body, the office of internal oversight services (OIOS) behind closed doors, with no reference to criminal authorities in the suspects’ home countries.

The allegations examined included rape and sexual assault. In each case the OIOS questioned UN staff, witnesses and victims before making a decision internally on the credibility of the allegations and whether or not they should be passed to the criminal authorities in the suspects’ home countries.

Once the suspects were cleared, they were free to return to work, with a UN spokesperson confirming: “If an allegation is determined to be unsubstantiated, no further action would be taken in connection with the subject of the allegations.”

The news is the latest in a series of scandals involving sexual abuse committed by UN peacekeepers in conflict-ridden countries across the world and highlights what many say are haphazard methods of dealing with sexual assault allegations.

The cases in question were exposed by the NGO Aids Free World, which wrote to the UN to ask what action had been taken in 12 separate cases cited by the OIOS in its annual reports from 2013 and 2014.

A response from the UN, sent to the Guardian by the office of Miguel de Serpa Soares, UN under-secretary-general for legal affairs, showed that only four out of 12 cases were ever passed on to the national authorities who have jurisdiction over the suspects for criminal investigation.

A further two were passed on to national authorities, only to be dropped at a later date, and another two are under review. After internal investigation – details of which the UN has not given publicly – the remaining four allegations, which included allegations of rape and the sexual assault of a child, were judged by the UN’s own investigators in the OIOS to have “insufficient evidence for the secretariat to refer the matter to the national authorities”.

The OIOS gives few details about the cases in the reports, omitting names and locations from the scant details which they have made public on each case.

Asked what legal basis the UN has for conducting investigations into rape allegations internally, a spokesperson said the organisation was governed by staff regulations and UN-drafted legislation.

In its reply to the request, the UN reiterated its commitment to a zero-tolerance policy on matters of sexual abuse and insisted that no staff accused of the crime enjoyed diplomatic immunity to prevent them from facing prosecution.

Paula Donovan, from Aids Free World, said that by investigating and acquitting its own staff of sexual assault, the UN was making a mockery of its “zero-tolerance” policy.

“The UN has created a double standard with no legal basis: on the one hand, it has decreed ‘zero tolerance for sexual exploitation and abuse’, and claims that the immunity that protects its staff, police, and experts from being subjected to normal legal processes simply doesn’t apply in such cases,” said Donovan.

“On the other hand, it effectively instructs civilians in peacekeeping countries to bypass local law enforcement if they’re sexually assaulted or exploited by anyone paid by the UN, and report those offenses instead to the accused’s employer – the UN. By doing so, the UN claims the right, as the employer of the accused, to assess each claim and decide for itself whether the alleged victim is credible, whether their reasons for reporting seem valid, and whether they can produce strong enough witnesses and supporting evidence to corroborate their claim.”

NGOs have spoken of a culture of impunity around allegations of sexual assault in UN peacekeeping missions, in recent months.

An internal UN report earlier this year described sexual exploitation and abuse as “the most significant risk” to peacekeeping missions across the globe. Another leaked report obtained by the Guardian spoke of French peacekeepers raping street children in Central African Republic during heavy conflict in the country between December 2013 and June 2014.

Annual reports from the OIOS talk of allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse damaging the reputation of the peacekeeping efforts, with 35 allegations reported last year, 12 of which involved minors.

The 2014 OIOS report hinted at the problems around reporting sex abuse cases to UN peacekeeping missions. A section reads: “As long as victims see that their primary avenue for reporting is to walk through the armed gates of peacekeeping missions to file their complaints, the Secretary-General’s zero-tolerance policy will not be seen as being credibly implemented.”

A UN spokesperson told the Guardian there are “several avenues through which victims are able to report allegations against UN peacekeepers”. Allegations can be reported to local leaders and local organisations, which report to the UN, or directly to the peacekeeping mission itself.

The UN is said to be under-going a “concerted effort to strengthen confidential mechanisms for reporting allegations without having to make direct contact with a mission”.

But NGO workers have told the Guardian that the mishmash of reporting mechanisms discourages victims from coming forward.

Sarah Taylor, advocate for women, peace and security at Human Rights Watch accused the UN of failing to be explicit, saying: “The persistent lack of transparency on these cases makes it very difficult to help victims seek justice.”

“With the UN historically providing few specifics on allegations, and so few troop- and police-contributing countries providing information on investigations and prosecutions, we don’t even have a clear idea of the scope of the problem,” she said.

Others have suggested that official figures for reported incidents are merely the tip of the iceberg. Brian Concannon, executive director at the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, an advocacy organisation which takes on human rights in Haiti, a country with a significant peacekeeper presence, said it is hard for victims to pursue claims against peacekeepers.

“The UN’s system for responding to sexual abuse is effectively doing what it is designed to do: protect the organisation and its people from accountability to the residents of the poor countries that host peacekeeping missions,” said Concannon.

“This is evident if you look at either the process – how hard it is for an assault victim to pursue a claim – or the results – a few dozen investigations each year for an organisation deploying hundreds of thousands of people.”