A proposal for change

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We have a plan for real change.

The United Nations’ peacekeeper sexual abuse scandal has endured for too long. For more than two decades, stomach-churning reports have appeared at regular intervals. UN peacekeeping personnel are accused of shocking acts committed against the most vulnerable people in the world, violating the sacred principles of peace and security at the core of the UN mandate. Remedial efforts have done little to end the scourge.

AIDS-Free World’s Code Blue Campaign has carefully studied the issue and we are eager to share our proposal.

We believe that the necessary solution is an independent, impartial Special Court Mechanism. The idea has received an enthusiastic hearing from ambassadors and government officials, legal experts, academics, international jurists, and experts on sexual violence and criminal accountability.

The United Nations Organization should be relieved of a duty that belongs in other hands.

This solution would end the Organization’s conflict of interest. Victims of sexual exploitation and abuse committed by UN peacekeeping personnel would no longer have to file complaints with other personnel from the same Organization and hope for justice.

Instead, all victims would report sexual offenses to the Special Court Mechanism’s intake offices near peacekeeping bases and outposts, where they would be provided with the independent, impartial response that is their due.

If allegations were lodged against non-military UN staff and experts on mission, the Special Court Mechanism would investigate and prosecute the alleged perpetrators. Although the “host state” of a peacekeeping mission has jurisdiction over such crimes, the UN Organization has long insisted that cases against the personnel it deploys cannot be fairly investigated or tried in a country riddled by conflict, where police and court systems are already in crisis. The mechanism would relieve the host state’s judicial system of the burden of handling such matters. (And if the non-military accused’s country of origin had laws allowing it to investigate and prosecute crimes committed by its nationals in the peacekeeping country, it could formally ask permission to do so.)

For allegations against military personnel, the mechanism would receive complaints and handle the job of referring the cases to the soldiers’ troop-contributing countries, which would be responsible for investigation and prosecution. If a troop-contributing country chose not to, the mechanism would step in and do the job.

The Special Court Mechanism would have a lean staff approved by and reporting to Member States. Its investigators, lawyers, and support personnel would have the legal authority to conduct bona fide criminal investigations. The court itself would be nimble, activated when needed and on location, enabling victims and perpetrators alike to take part in fair trials and see that justice is being done. A roster of pre-qualified international judges would preside over the proceedings and hand down sentences. The Special Court Mechanism would maintain a registry; keep full, accurate crime statistics; doggedly follow up and report on the progress of each case; and ensure that victims are kept informed.

It is a bold and ambitious plan. But a Special Court Mechanism is what an otherwise intractable problem demands. It would meet the needs of peacekeeping countries under siege and help to ensure impartial justice for victims, affected communities, and the accused.

We have identified several foundational elements that could aid Member States as they begin the process of creating a strong Special Court Mechanism.

A Victims’ Bill of Rights is needed to provide the framework to uphold a transformed system of justice. It would spell out exactly what victims are entitled to receive, such as information, interpretation services, assurances of privacy, protection, and restitution.

The voices of victims and communities must be heard. Civilians whose lives are directly affected by the UN’s presence in peacekeeping countries have insights unlike anyone else’s. We have explored avenues for them to describe their firsthand experiences and convey their honest, unmediated opinions.

First, the Code Blue Campaign is arranging for affected community members, even in the most remote areas, to answer a series of open-ended questions anonymously, using a smartphone self-interviewing technique we developed and call CAVIA. Second, we are convening public “hearings” in countries with both active and completed peacekeeping missions. The forum will allow victims who want to come forward to give testimony and express their views, and for the first time, allow local responders to offer their informed critiques before a panel of expert witnesses.

Those insights and observations would be relayed to the UN’s Member States, filling in the critical dimension that decision-makers have been missing.

Just how pervasive is the culture of impunity?  The best source of that information can be found within the UN Organization. An anonymous staff survey, conducted by an independent third party to guarantee confidentiality, would provide an unvarnished assessment of the true breadth of the problem, and to the real barriers to reporting and addressing sexual abuse in the UN system.

Any healthy justice system needs checks and balances to keep it responsive and transparent. The Special Court Mechanism would enlist the regular involvement of local and international civil society experts on sexual violence, gender, and culture.

Would-be perpetrators who find their way into UN jobs or military peacekeeping contingents need to know exactly what will befall them if they commit crimes of this nature. With the wisdom of hindsight, we can see the strengths and weaknesses of the 2003 Secretary-General’s Bulletin that conveyed UN system-wide “zero tolerance” for sexual exploitation and abuse. The UN must now clarify that the immunity provided to UN personnel by the 1946 Convention on the Privileges and Immunities does not cover sexual crimes. Communicating that fact widely will go a long way toward breaking the myth that UN personnel are above the law and toward ending the culture of impunity.

The United Nations, its invaluable peacekeeping operations, and civilians in crisis around the world all need and deserve a root-and-branch overhaul of the response to sexual exploitation and abuse. Past efforts have all served only to modify a system that is fundamentally flawed. The UN’s Member States can release their Organization from criminal-justice functions that it is neither designed nor authorized to carry out. It can end the untenable conflict of interest, and fill a yawning gap in accountability. It can wipe out the necessity for damage-control exercises that are sapping time and resources. Once liberated by the creation of a Special Court Mechanism, the UN Organization can concentrate fully on its essential mandates of peace, security, and humanitarian assistance.

It is time for the United Nations to consider a truly game-changing solution. Member States are unanimous: The stakes could not be higher. The UN needs a solution that is fast, efficient, and fair. The UN needs a solution that will actually work. There is a path forward. The Code Blue Campaign is eager to help.