We must fix the UN's culture of coverups around peacekeeping (Op Ed)
Source: Ottawa Citizen
By Allan Rock
Last weekend we marked the International Day of United Nations Peacekeepers. Canada has always been closely associated with UN peacekeeping, and with good reason: It was invented by our former prime minister, Lester Pearson, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. And Canadian forces have made important contributions to many UN peacekeeping missions over the years, including Cyprus, where we served with distinction for decades.
This subject has special significance for me.
My father spent his working life in the Canadian Army. He joined in 1939. He served overseas during the Second World War. He remained in the army on his return. He retired as a staff sergeant after 26 years in uniform.
One of the periods of his service of which my father was most proud was the 18 months he spent in the late 1950s wearing a blue helmet in the Middle East, as part of the original UN Emergency Force Pearson created.
I still have the letters he wrote home, telling us excitedly about the work he did and the satisfaction he felt helping bring stability to a volatile area.
When my father returned home, he brought memorabilia branded with the famous UN symbol. My sisters and I kept them proudly, as mementos. We felt that we had all contributed, each in our own way, to his noble and worthy service in the cause of peace.
How things have changed.
The UN peacekeeping brand has been stained indelibly by three major sins. The first is the profound breach of trust committed by peacekeepers who abuse their position to sexually exploit vulnerable people in their care. Canada is not immune: The UN recently reported that two Canadian police officers were accused of sexual misconduct while deployed in the UN’s mission in Haiti last year.
The second is the damage negligently caused to the innocent in Haiti when UN operations contaminated the water supply and sickened civilians with cholera. Before peacekeepers discharged untreated human waste into Haiti’s largest river system, the disease had never been present in the country. It has now has killed at least 9,200 people.
The third is the abject failure of the United Nations to own up to these lapses, and to respond to them in an effective, principled way.
If he were still alive, I know my father would feel betrayed and angry. He would demand answers. He would insist on accountability. He would expect real reforms and meaningful reparations.
And he would, of course, be entirely right.
There is much work to do if we are to restore the lustre to that 1950s UN insignia that I still have in my home. And Canadians can now take part in that work.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has boldly claimed that “Canada is back.” After a decade of disdain for multilateralism, Canada is engaging with the world again, and even seeking election to the UN Security Council in 2020. As part of our re-engagement, let’s help make UN peacekeeping once again a source of hope for people in vulnerable countries and pride for the member states who support it.
We can start by demanding an end to the UN’s culture of cover ups. Let’s insist on real accountability for sexual abuse and exploitation by UN personnel. And let’s lead by example when Canadians are alleged to be perpetrators.
We must also press the UN to respond justly to the cholera crisis in Haiti.
As five of the UN’s own human rights experts have recently stressed, the UN’s inaction on cholera in the face of overwhelming evidence of responsibility “undermines the reputation of the United Nations, calls into question the ethical framework within which its peacekeeping forces operate, and challenges the credibility of the organization as an entity that respects human rights.” It is high time for the UN to accept responsibility for the outbreak, provide compensation to victims, and fund efforts to put an end to the epidemic through clean water and sanitation.
So let’s rebuild the world’s trust in UN peacekeeping. Let’s learn the lessons that emerge from past failures. Let’s invoke the idealism that sent my father to the Sinai Peninsula, to Haifa and Port Said those many years ago.
By demanding justice for Haitians, and by addressing the scourge of peacekeeper sexual abuse, our Prime Minister can help protect the rights of the world’s most vulnerable, while showing that Canada really is back, and for the better.
Allan Rock is president of the University of Ottawa and a former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations.
(UN Photo / JC McIlwaine)