The UN, Rape, Zero Tolerance and South Sudan

July 29, 2016: The Associated Press reported this week that dozens of Nuer women and girls who’d fled for protection to a UN peacekeeping camp were instead viciously raped by South Sudanese government soldiers just outside the camp’s gates while UN peacekeepers remained inert. In fact, witnesses reported that some 30 armed UN peacekeepers watched passively as a screaming woman was dragged away by two of the militia; at least two victims died from the sexual torture. This during a hellish 3-week period when observers have questioned whether 13,500 UN peacekeepers’ failure to prevent civilian massacres and over 120 rapes is a question of their lack of ability or lack of will.  Code Blue questions whether any messages about the meaning of zero tolerance are filtering down to UN peacekeepers.

Zero tolerance, as spelled out by the Secretary-General’s 2003 Bulletin on sexual exploitation and abuse, explicitly states that peacekeepers “have a particular duty of care towards women and children.” The policy makes special reference (1) to the fact that under international humanitarian law, UN peacekeepers have an obligation to protect women “against rape, enforced prostitution or any other form of indecent assault.” If they truly have zero tolerance, they cannot be bystanders while women are raped, regardless of whether or not the assaults are being committed by those operating under the UN banner.

Once again, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is “appalled.” So is the rest of the world – but not only by the unimaginable suffering of those women and girls. We’re also appalled by fresh evidence of Mr. Ban’s failed attempt to erase a decade of indifference to sexualized violence when his primary response is to re-appoint one tough-talking “Special Coordinator,” a woman charged with “improving the UN system’s response to sexual exploitation and abuse.” By anyone’s measure, dozens of brutal gang rapes committed in the backyard of a UN peacekeeping mission, some vicious enough to leave the victims dead, is no improvement.       

How many more depraved, gut-wrenching “incidents” will it take to prove that the United Nations is unqualified and incapable of dealing with sexual abuse of any kind?  Is THIS enough evidence that the United Nations is not “responding” to its crisis of sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeeping personnel, but hemorrhaging from it?  Or is the strategy one of biding time, looking deeply concerned and terribly busy until every diplomat and journalist and civilian in every country has finally grown inured to hearing that another pair of UN peacekeeping soldiers raped another 12-year-old child, or another few UN staff members were quietly relieved of their duties on suspicion of sex trafficking, or another police peacekeeper left his local “girlfriend” destitute and pregnant, or another military contingent of Chinese or Nepalese or French collected their ‘e-learning’ certificates of gender training and their paychecks, leaned against their armored trucks, and smoked cigarettes while their radios squawked with the sounds of the most helpless women on earth, begging for help from just 100 yards away?

The “misconduct” (to borrow, with brittle irony, the UN’s euphemistic term for sexualized violence when it’s perpetrated by its own personnel) recently reported by AP happened on July 17th. On July 26th, the UN News Centre published its first interview with Ban’s Special Coordinator on Improving United Nations Response to Sexual Exploitation and Abuse, Jane Holl Lute. Asked first about the size of the UN system’s problem of sexual exploitation and abuse, Lute responded ‘candidly’:  “There is not a family, a school, an organization, a military, a government, or any activity free from this problem.” The interviewer pressed; it’s a particular problem in peacekeeping, though, isn’t it? “It’s not; it is a particular problem wherever women, children, and [the] vulnerable are present.” Halfway through the interview, the mantra was recited again: “There's no family, church, school, office or activity where this isn't an ever-present danger.”

WRONG. So wrong, in fact, that the Special Coordinator reveals herself to be unfit for the job. Jane Holl Lute is the UN system’s best and last hope to ‘improve’ its peacekeeper sex abuse crisis, and Jane Holl Lute doesn’t understand the first thing about sexual abuse. No family is mandated to protect the world’s most at-risk populations when they are at their most defenseless. No school or NGO or church is trained and equipped and armed, and then deployed to the world’s hottest spots with a mission to halt the ‘scourge of war.’ No profit-making company would survive the marketplace if its annual reports included catalogues of customer allegations that they’d been criminally assaulted by employees – the overwhelming majority of whom were still working for the company, or at large. Yes, there are militaries with records of sexual abuse as bad as the UN’s – and several of them have been charged with the worst offenses in any criminal code: war crimes, and crimes against humanity. The UN’s activities are NOT like every other ‘activity’; the UN is unique. Alone in the world, the UN gets to conduct its activities anywhere on earth, with the assurance that it is immune from legal process. Unlike any other organization devised throughout history, the United Nations exists to represent the very best ideals and standards of humankind. So with the deference you deserve for specialty areas in which you are competent, Ms. Jane Holl Lute, we respectfully urge you to end the absurd analogies that so starkly reveal your shortcomings and follow your own advice: either take an emergency course in the complex terrain of sexualized violence, or stand down.  

(1) ST/SGB/1999/13, Art. 7.3

(UN Photo/Nektarios Markogiannis)