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New UN peacekeeper sex abuse report is stunning, but for unexpected reasons

March 3, 2016 — Code Blue has obtained a copy of the Secretary-General’s annual report on ‘Special Measures’ to address sexual exploitation and abuse. The report confirms that ‘allegations’ against peacekeeping personnel went up to 69 in 2015, from 52 the year before, alarming enough news. But the real headline is this: Under Ban Ki-moon’s leadership, the people now in charge of fixing the whole broken system are the very culprits who mismanaged peacekeeper child sexual abuse in the Central African Republic.

It’s game over. Member States can no longer depend on the UN bureaucracy to heal its internal crisis of sexual exploitation and abuse. The bureaucratic poseurs have to stop posing: the more they pretend that this emergency can be solved by slow incremental reforms, the more they endanger civilians.

Transparency and accountability are the watchwords for this report, but not for the Secretary-General or his senior staff. A child sex abuse scandal in the Central African Republic dominated headlines last year, and a panel of external independent judges (the “CAR Panel”) described the UN’s role in that scandal and its handling of all peacekeeper sex abuse as a ‘gross institutional failure.’

What does the 2015 Special Measures report say about the CAR Panel? It largely relegates its findings to a fictitious spot “outside the scope of the present report,” with vague assurances that the Secretary-General is already implementing this or planning to implement that, and will answer the critique somewhere down the road.

In truth, the Secretary-General never planned to respond to the blistering performance evaluation delivered by the CAR Panel. Nor will he hold those implicated in wrongdoing accountable.  On the contrary, a close reading of the Special Measures report confirms what high-level UN insiders tell us: the UN’s peacekeeper sexual abuse crisis will now be managed in large part by a trio of travesty—Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the High Commissioner for Human Rights; Hervé Ladsous, Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations; and Anthony Lake, the Executive Director of UNICEF—whose negligence, indifference and subsequent cover-ups compounded the horrors in the Central African Republic.

All three, whether by name, title or agency, were upbraided with “adverse observations” from the CAR Panel. Strangled by the need to use UN definitions, the Review Panel stopped just short of finding them guilty of “abuse of authority,” but the import of its unflinching criticism was clear.

Consider Prince Zeid. The CAR Panel found that the High Commissioner for Human Rights had a “single-minded determination to pursue a complaint against [a high-ranking employee].” That obsession clearly took precedence over concern for the young boys being raped in CAR.  Predictably, the employee was exonerated, thus painfully revealing the lack of judgment on the part of Prince Zeid.

Take Hervé Ladsous. As Under-Secretary-General for the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, his indifference to the terrible sexual abuse happening on his watch caused the CAR Panel to say that he gave legitimacy to the appearance of impunity, and “… acted in ways that illustrated the UN’s failure to respond to allegations of serious human rights violations in a meaningful way.”

Take Anthony Lake. The only thing more shocking than the Review Panel’s commentary on UNICEF is the fact that its Executive Director has never been called to account. UNICEF sat on the information about child rape for months without saying a public or private word. UNICEF then claimed to have provided safe havens, medical aid and psycho-social support for those boys. The CAR Panel obliterated that claim as a complete fabrication. Worst of all was the revelation that if UNICEF had intervened after the first or even second interviews with the little boys, a minimum of two subsequent child rapes could have been prevented.

In any other setting this would be called dereliction of duty.

In the alternative universe of the UN bureaucracy, a cast of characters who played active roles in the CAR debacle will now oversee the latest round of improvised improvements. When the foxes are in charge of the henhouse, this is it. The henhouse is doomed.

No doubt, the Secretary-General will receive kudos this week for ‘naming and shaming’ troop-contributing countries. The report itself looks impressive, replete with tables and data. But at a time when the photos of individuals accused of sex crimes are plastered across newspapers, that can hardly be seen as a decade’s worth of achievement.

Ban Ki-moon has had nine years and two months in office. Where is the progress? It’s 2016, and the Secretary-General speaks of planned measures to develop uniform standards of investigation across missions, to begin vetting large numbers of uniformed personnel, to develop guidance for Heads of Mission to refer criminal conduct … it all begs the question: how, exactly, has the UN dealt with 1000+ sexual offense allegations made against its personnel since 2007? This is inertia masquerading as action.

Nothing in the report suggests the kind of change that needs to happen to extirpate peacekeeping sexual exploitation and abuse, once and for all.

Unlike any other global crisis affecting civilian populations, this one was created by the UN bureaucracy. Therein lies the conflict of interest. A bureaucracy cannot take both sides in criminal complaints made against the personnel who work for it. They cannot accept reports, grill accusers, interview witnesses, collect evidence and pass judgment on the ‘credibility’ of criminal complaints, while at the same time provide legal advice and assistance to victims. When UN peacekeeping personnel attack civilians under UN protection, the UN bureaucracy intercedes on behalf of both predators and prey. Nothing works: everything breaks down.

So what can be done about the desperate situation in which we find ourselves?

The Code Blue campaign has an answer. It doesn’t involve more timid tampering with the status quo. It rejects the fantasy that you can bring calm to chaos simply by appointing a co-ordinator. It acknowledges that one UN bureaucracy cannot possibly broker justice for both the accused and accusers.

This is Code Blue’s recommendation. Member States must take the UN’s crisis of sexual exploitation and abuse into an approximation of receivership or guardianship. The UN’s unique structure will require a unique solution: a board of oversight, totally outside and independent of the UN Secretary-General and the bureaucracy, which assumes authority until such time as the system is fixed and the crisis expunged.

The oversight board would consist of esteemed, impartial judges and lawyers, experts on sexual violence, leaders in women’s rights and child protection, respected and knowledgeable military and police—nominated, appointed by, and reporting directly to the Member States. The oversight board would be supported by a dedicated technical team reporting directly to the board, also entirely separate from the UN bureaucracy.

The board would be mandated to follow the trail of each allegation made, every step of the way. They would have complete access to every component of the UN structure, all information and every staff member involved with responding to an allegation of sexual exploitation and abuse against UN personnel. The board would monitor activities and procedures in real time, identifying what goes right, what goes wrong, and where necessary, installing change on the spot.

Over time, the oversight board would accrue a compendium of information and knowledge. With that, it would propose to all Member States a plan to reform, root and branch, the response to and handling of sexual exploitation and abuse. Most important of all, the Member States would be in control. Only when a legally sound and functioning system is in place, only when Member States are absolutely certain that the bureaucracy is ready and able to implement their collective will, would control be returned to the UN bureaucracy.

Member States must tell Ban Ki-moon that enough is enough. To quote the CAR Panel: “The fact that the problem persists despite several expert reports commissioned by the UN over the last ten years only serves to exacerbate the perception that the UN is more concerned with rhetoric than action.”

That’s the crux. The fallout from that rhetoric? Sexual violence, and justice denied.

It’s criminal to put up with it any longer.


(UN Photo / Eskinder Debebe)

AIDS-Free World is an international advocacy organization devoted to exposing and addressing injustice, abuse, and inequality. We launched the Code Blue campaign to end impunity for sexual exploitation and abuse by UN peacekeeping personnel.
Twitter: @AIDS_Free_World