Toronto Star: Probe of sex abuse by UN peacekeepers is long overdue: Editorial
The United Nations is finally launching a probe into its failure to protect children and women under its care from sexual abuse by some peacekeepers.
June 25, 2015: They are among the most vulnerable people in the world: young children and women trapped in deadly crises, supposedly under the protection of United Nations peacekeepers.
That’s the picture the UN would have us believe. The reality in too many places is a dirty little secret. The organization has known for more than a decade that some peacekeepers engage in “transactional sex” with hungry and helpless women and children in war-torn zones.
Now, in the wake of a sexual abuse scandal involving French peacekeepers in the Central African Republic (CAR), the UN is finally launching a probe into its failure to protect citizens under its care from sexual abuse and exploitation.
The investigation, to be led by Canada’s former Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps, is long overdue.
A year ago UN investigators heard reports of sexual abuse from boys in a displaced persons’ camp in the CAR who said they approached French soldiers because they were hungry. Some were reportedly so young they did not even understand the acts soldiers demanded in return for food. But the investigators’ reports went unheeded.
This in an organization that considers human rights one of its three main pillars. That has a stated policy of zero tolerance for sexual abuse. That just this month received a draft report saying peacekeepers engaged in “transactional sex” with more than 225 Haitian women who needed food and medicine. And that now acknowledges major challenges remain a full decade after a UN investigation first reported on the sex-abuse issue.
Even in light of the report from Haiti, it’s not known whether the UN would have continued to sweep the allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation in Africa under the rug. That’s because they came to light only after the charity AIDS-Free World leaked the investigators’ report on the children’s allegations. The charity demanded that the UN “examine every avenue, including the system-wide failures of leadership, and fix what has plagued peacekeeping for decades.”
That will be a challenge. Deschamps and her panel have been given only 10 weeks by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to conduct the probe, though that might be extended.
It should be. There are now 125,000 personnel serving in 16 UN peacekeeping operations worldwide. With the recent revelations from the CAR and Haiti, it’s hard to believe the claim in the secretary-general’s latest annual report that there were only 51 allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation against members of all UN peacekeeping missions last year.
Complicating the issue is the immunity from prosecution granted to UN personnel serving with peacekeeping operations. That has been used to shield those accused of abuse. But a growing number of critics, including Sen. Roméo Dallaire, have rightly called for that immunity to be at least partly withdrawn in such cases.
Justice Deschamps, who produced a damning report last month on sexual harassment and assault in the Canadian military, is not one to let authority deflect her from duty. More difficult will be turning the Queen Mary of bureaucratic organizations around to ensure that it finally faces up to this appalling situation and acts on her recommendations.