February 14, 2014 (MercatorNet) – Which worldwide institution has turned a blind eye to sexual abuse of children, has failed to compensate victims, has failed to investigate or prosecute the perpetrators, has failed to follow its own agenda for reform, has fostered a culture of impunity, has refused to name and shame responsible managers, and has little transparency in reporting and investigating allegations?


The Catholic Church?

The correct answer is the United Nations. The Church has done much in the last 20 years to right the wrong of sexual abuse by abusive priests. They constitute a tiny fraction of hundreds of thousands of honourable men, but hundreds have been defrocked; many have been jailed; negligent bishops have been named and shamed.

The UN has hardly begun.

And in the light of scandalous abuse by some UN peacekeepers around the world, last week’s scathing report from the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child seems either disingenuous or hypocritical. In the same 20 years, almost no Blue Helmets accused of rape or abuse have been punished. The “best interests of the child” is a concept that rarely emerges in discussions of abuse; the focus is almost wholly upon the UN’s tarnished reputation.

The Committee was scathing about the efforts of the Holy See to cope with its sexual abuse crisis. It said that:

  • most of the recommendations the Committee made 20 years ago had not been implemented.
  • “the Holy See has consistently placed the preservation of the reputation of the Church and the protection of the perpetrators above children’s best interests”
  • “the Holy See has not acknowledged the extent of the crimes committed”
  • the Holy See had “adopted policies and practices which have led to the continuation of the abuse by and the impunity of the perpetrators.”

But there are remarkable parallels between the United Nations and the Catholic Church. Both are widely admired and prestigious. Both are vast institutions spanning many cultures, countries and legal systems. Both have a central administration which struggles to enforce its authority locally. Both have a problem with sexual abuse. But the Catholic Church is light years ahead of the UN in coming to grips with the problem.

Not that administering 15 peacekeeping operations is easy. At the end of last year, the UN employed about 85,000 soldiers and 13,000 police, from 122 countries. The Blue Helmets were assisted by 5,000 international civilians, 12,000 local civilians and 2,000 volunteers. It’s not picnic. They serve in volatile, dangerous regions in primitive conditions. Since 1948 more than 3,000 have been killed. In many respects, they do essential work bravely and well. In 1988 the peacekeepers won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Dark stories

However, allegations of sexual abuse began to surface in the 1990s – at the same time as they did in the Catholic Church. UN police and soldiers in Kosovo were even accused of running brothels with women and girls trafficked from Eastern Europe.

In the late 90s in Mozambique, Cambodia, East Timor and Liberia, troops were accused of sexual exploitation of children, pornography, and sexual assaults. During the UN mission in Cambodia in 1992/93, the number of prostitutes is said to have risen from 6,000 to 25,000, including more child prostitutes. The top UN official at the time shrugged it off. “Boys will be boys,” he said.

A 2001 report by the UNHCR and Save the Children-UK detailed grisly stories of the abuse and prostitution of young girls by peacekeepers and UN agencies in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. “The position of power, wealth and status enjoyed by peacekeeping personnel gives them the ability to do as they wish,” it said.

Worse stories emerged in 2004 in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The media reported that many girls and women in battle zones of the DRC were trading sex for food and other essentials from the Blue Helmets.

Meanwhile, back in New York, outrage

Then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan was appalled by this violation of the UN’s zero-tolerance policy on sexual abuse. He commissioned a report by Prince Zeid Ra’ad Zeid Al-Hussein, Jordan’s UN representative and a former peacekeeper. The Zeid Report was scathing. It documented pervasive abuse and exploitation of women and girls, especially trading sex for money, food, or jobs. Girls were given gifts after being raped so that the soldiers could claim that they were prostitutes. “Peacekeeper babies,” were left without families to care for them. Prince Zeid made a number of sound recommendations.

But a year later, little had happened. The New York Times fulminated that “almost a year after shocking disclosures about such crimes in Congo, far too little has been done to end the culture of impunity, exploitation and sexual chauvinism that permits them to go on.” Even Prince Zeid admitted in a confidential report, “the situation appears to be one of ‘zero-compliance with zero tolerance’ throughout the mission.”

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A year after this, in 2006, a UN official lamented, “We are applying a standard of morality that is very, very high but we cannot expect that soldiers when they go abroad are going to behave themselves as we think they should.” Soon afterwards, Kofi Annan, who was about to retire, said that “My message of zero-tolerance has still not got through to all those who need to hear it -– from managers and commanders on the ground, to all our other personnel.”

Impenetrable statistics

How much abuse is there? The UN’s Conduct and Discipline Unit has a nifty graph listing substantiated, unsubstantiated and pending allegations against UN staff. Since 2007, there have been only 354 substantiated cases of sexual exploitation and abuse – among thousands of troops risking their lives in desperately poor and violent countries. But as UN officials say over and over again, one case is too many.

But the statistics are aggregated, since the UN has a policy of not naming and shaming individual countries. After all, it needs them to continue contributing troops.

And even the statistics they do provide do not inspire confidence. It is public knowledge that in 2007 the UN mission to Haiti repatriated 111 Sri Lankan soldiers and three officers after allegations of sexual abuse. But the nifty graph does not appear to include them.

It is very hard to know the true figures, as there is little incentive to report it in conflict-ridden societies. A 2008 report by Save the Children UK said that “A key finding of our fieldwork was the chronic under-reporting of abuse. The overwhelming majority of people we spoke to would not report a case of abuse themselves and had never heard of others in the community doing so.”  

More than twenty years after abuse emerged as a serious issue, much remains to be done. A report written in 2013 by Carla Ferstman, a Canadian lawyer, for the US-based Institute of Peace, gives an excellent summary of the intractable problems.

Seminal reports by experts have been commissioned and revised memorandums that afford the UN much stronger powers of oversight have been signed, yet years after a series of comprehensive strategies were recommended in 2006, little appears to have changed: accountability remains the exception to the rule, new abuses continue to be reported, and the business of sexual exploitation and abuse in peacekeeping continues. The inevitable result of complacency and unimplemented strategies is impunity among peacekeepers.

In June last year a Security Council resolution demanded that the Secretary-General “continue and strengthen efforts to implement the policy of zero tolerance on sexual exploitation and abuse by UN personnel and urges concerned Member States to ensure full accountability, including prosecutions, in cases of such conduct involving their nationals.” The implication is that little had been achieved.

No prosecutions

Most damning of all, Ferstmann says that: “Significantly, the rate of related criminal prosecutions remains negligible.” In other words, victims effectively are denied redress. Allegations are lost in a legal wilderness. No one is talking about million-dollar payouts for victims; no one seems to be talking about any payouts. No one even seems to be collecting their names.

And the perpetrators of abuse almost always get away scot-free. In Haiti, the government has issued a blanket waiver of all criminal and civil liability for human rights abuses committed by UN peacekeepers, including the 114 Sri Lankan soldiers. This is an injustice that another UN committee has harshly condemned.

But such agreements between the UN and troop-contributing countries are normal. National armies have exclusive responsibility for disciplining their soldiers. The UN can repatriate a soldier who has been accused of an offense, but it is up to the military in his own country to investigate, try and punish him.

This seldom happens. The evidence is far away in a war-torn country and laws back home may not treat the incident as an offence. The countries are supposed to keep the UN informed of the progress of misconduct investigations. But most of the time the response rate has been below 50 percent.

If the soldiers are charged, they may escape with a slap on the wrist. Ferstman writes: “Numerous credible allegations have not resulted in prosecution. For example, preliminary information implicating fourteen Moroccan troops serving in Côte d’Ivoire—including DNA evidence showing that some had fathered children—reportedly did not result in conclusive evidence and led the Moroccan government to drop all charges.”

One UN official acknowledged in 2005 that UN officials accused of sexual abuse on peacekeeping missions ended up in other UN jobs instead of being blacklisted.

So there you have it: a culture of impunity for sexual abuse, victims ignored, meagre if any compensation, perpetrators whisked away to a different jurisdiction to escape punishment, impenetrable statistics, stonewalling officials. This is happening at the United Nations, the same organization which is accusing the Catholic Church of inaction.

And to add to the double standard, several of the 18 members of the Committee on the Rights of the Child come from countries whose soldiers have been accused of rape and child abuse. Including Sri Lanka. Go figure.

Reprinted with permission from MercatorNet