The devotion to duty of nine UN peacekeepers who died in a hail of rebel bullets in the lawless eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo on 25 February is a grim reminder of how high the price of peace can be. Their sacrifice stands in stark contrast to the behaviour of a small minority of “blue helmets” responsible for acts of sexual exploitation and abuse that have damaged the credibility of the UN mission in the Congo. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has denounced the abuses as “an ugly stain” on the world body. He has put in place tough new measures to end them, including a dusk-to-dawn curfew for military personnel and an outright ban on unauthorized contact with local residents.
Investigators have been sent to the country to examine allegations of sexual abuse by UN personnel, and this has resulted in dozens of expulsions and some criminal prosecutions by the offenders’ home governments. Deputy Secretary-General Louise Fréchette visited UN peace missions in West Africa to emphasize the organization’s “zero tolerance” for sexual assault, child abuse and prostitution.
Despite these actions, press reports indicate that sexual misconduct in peacekeeping missions is continuing. This underscores the difficulty of maintaining discipline among some 80,000 military and civil personnel currently scattered over 16 countries around the world, not counting a new mission slated for Sudan. The problem is compounded by the little-recognized fact that responsibility for training, command and discipline of peacekeeping troops is almost entirely in the hands of the member states that contribute the troops. This limits the UN’s ability to enforce standards of behaviour in its missions and can fuel perceptions that the organization condones or ignores sexual abuse.
As investigators examine reports of misconduct in several peacekeeping missions and evidence emerges that abuses have been committed by UN personnel in Haiti, Burundi and Liberia, Mr. Annan warned the Security Council in February that success in rooting out abusers “will be measured not by a decrease in allegations but, on the contrary, a likely increase” as more misconduct is uncovered. “We must leave no stone unturned.”
When accounts began to surface early last year of sexual misconduct by UN personnel in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) the peacekeeping department requested an investigation by the UN’s Office for Internal Oversight Services (OIOS). The abuses OIOS uncovered were appalling. One former civilian member of the mission was expelled after Congolese police found videos and photographs of the perpetrator with Congolese children and young women. He is now in prison in France awaiting trial. Other allegations centred on uniformed members of the UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC) stationed in the eastern town of Bunia, who have been accused of soliciting prostitution and exchanging money and food for sex with refugees -- some as young as 12.
As of early March, OIOS investigators had recommended disciplinary action against nine civilian MONUC members and 65 soldiers, 63 of whom have been expelled from the mission and repatriated. But they noted that other cases had been dropped because the victims were unable or unwilling to identify their assailants.
“Equally disturbing,” the OIOS investigators charged, was the lack of a programme to enforce the UN’s long-standing “zero tolerance” policy. That policy, strengthened in recent years in response to past problems and incorporated into ongoing efforts to improve gender balance and sensitivity in UN peace operations. It prohibits sexual activities with persons under 18, the exchange of money, goods or services for sexual favours, visits to brothels or other areas declared “off-limits” and any conduct deemed sexually abusive, exploitive or degrading. The OIOS reported, however, that MONUC had failed to put enforcement mechanisms in place -- producing a situation the investigating body described as “zero compliance with zero tolerance.”
“We have a real substantive problem, not just a public relations issue that needs to be ‘spun,’” the head of the peacekeeping department, Under-Secretary-General Jean-Marie Guéhenno, said after the report’s release on 8 January. “We have to deal with it collectively, aggressively and quickly. And we must prevent it from happening again in the future.”
“The blue helmet has become black and blue through self-inflicted wounds. We will not sit still until the lustre of that blue helmet is restored.”
-- Ms. Jane Holl Lute, assistant secretary-general for peacekeeping
To that end, Mr. Annan and other senior UN leaders have imposed a range of new restrictions on MONUC and other peacekeeping staff, expanded monitoring and enforcement operations and pursued changes in training, command and disciplinary methods with troop contributing countries. The new policies have not yet succeeded in eliminating sexual misconduct, however, leading some critics, including conservative members of the US Congress, to demand that the UN impose far harsher punishments on individual peacekeepers and on governments that fail to discipline offenders.
Yet the US and other powerful UN member states have never given the UN Secretariat such authority over peacekeeping troops. Although UN personnel rules and peacekeeping codes have been steadily strengthened in recent years, enforcement of such rules for peacekeeping troops, including punishment for violations, is the responsibility of individual contributing countries. Under agreements regulating the relationship between the UN and troop contributors, peacekeepers are deployed as national contingents, each with its own commanders. The UN can ask for repatriation of individuals suspected of misconduct, request that the contributing country take appropriate disciplinary action and bar the suspects from future missions. But the UN does not have the authority to bring criminal charges or to convict and punish blue helmets for misconduct. It is the responsibility of each government to decide whether or how to punish its nationals for misconduct on UN missions.
With those constraints in mind, Ms. Jane Holl Lute, the UN’s assistant secretary-general for peacekeeping, outlined the range of actions already initiated by the UN Secretariat at a briefing to members of the US Congress in March. “Individually these actions may seem unsatisfying,” Ms. Lute conceded. “But when you combine them together they represent a comprehensive program and mark our determination.”
The UN actions relating to MONUC include:
• a ban on all unofficial contact and fraternization by mission personnel with local communities
• a dusk-to-dawn curfew on military personnel, so that they do not leave their base during night time off-hours
• the prohibition of civilian dress for uniformed contingents, to ease monitoring and identification of UN personnel
• increased cooperation with Congolese police to reduce informal contact between UN personnel and local women
• expanded training in UN codes of conduct and personnel rules regarding sexual abuse and exploitation
• the designation of some local business establishments, including brothels and some bars, as “off-limits to UN personnel”
• improved amenities and recreational facilities on base
• improved communications with local communities and civil authorities, including the creation of a confidential “hotline” to report abuses
• the establishment of a new office within MONUC to investigate any new allegations.
The Secretary-General has requested an additional 100 military police to help enforce the new restrictions on MONUC, which currently maintains about 18,000 soldiers and civilians, including 175 civilian police, in scattered outposts in a country the size of Western Europe.
Mr. Annan has also promised to hold to account anyone in the chain of command found complicit with the abuses. Six Moroccan field officers have been relieved of duty and changes in the leadership of the troubled mission are also underway. A team of experts headed by Assistant Secretary-General Angela Kane travelled to the DRC for seven weeks at the beginning of the year to investigate all outstanding accusations of misconduct and examine MONUC disciplinary and command procedures.
Reforms are also underway at UN headquarters in New York. A permanent unit on sexual abuse and exploitation has been established in Mr. Guéhenno’s office, while an interagency task force on sexual abuse, headed by Assistant Secretary-General Lute, coordinates the overall effort and develops recommendations for further action. Officers charged with monitoring and enforcing UN rules against sexual misconduct have been dispatched to every peacekeeping mission, and training for existing human rights and gender advisers is being strengthened.
Dialogue with contributing countries
Mr. Annan has opened a dialogue with troop contributing countries as well, appointing Jordanian Ambassador to the UN Prince Zeid Ra’ad Zeid al-Hussein to develop proposals for comprehensive reform of disciplinary and training procedures. In a detailed report released on 24 March, Prince Zeid recommended, among other things, that the General Assembly require troop contributing countries to investigate charges of sexual misconduct brought by UN investigators and report on the outcome of each case. Disciplinary proceedings should be conducted in the host country whenever possible, and individual peacekeepers should be held financially accountable for their abuses through payment of compensation, including child support, to the victims.
One difficulty in securing agreement on enforcement of UN personnel rules, Ms. Lute told the US Congress, is that some actions prohibited for peacekeepers, such as soliciting prostitution and having intimate relations with anyone under age 18, are legal in parts of the world. With 103 troop contributing countries, each with widely differing laws and social mores and varying degrees of capacity in national criminal and military justice systems, it is extremely difficult to reach consensus on a one-size-fits-all code of conduct.
Obtaining the hard evidence needed for criminal prosecution is another challenge. The UN is bound by international legal standards of due process, including the presumption of innocence, and sexual assaults are notoriously difficult to prove even in countries with sophisticated police forces and criminal justice systems. The challenges UN investigators face in building cases in conflict areas, often working with victims and witnesses already traumatized by violence and fearful of retribution for cooperating with interviewers, can be enormous.
Leery of ‘naming and shaming’
There are political difficulties as well. OIOS investigators have reported instances of misconduct among troops from many contributing countries. Yet representatives of some of the largest contributors, all of which are developing countries, have expressed concerns about their countries’ being singled out and stigmatized for the actions of the abusive few. Those concerns have been fuelled by some critics of the UN’s handling of the scandal, who demand that the UN “name and shame” the offenders’ countries of origin. Others propose completely barring from participation in any peacekeeping missions those countries that fail to prosecute the accused.
Mr. Annan and other senior officials have indicated that discussions with troop contributors are going well. They point to Morocco’s announcement that six of its soldiers who were serving in the DRC have been charged with criminal offences as a sign of the willingness of contributing states to hold abusers to account. France and South Africa have also filed criminal charges against personnel over alleged misconduct in MONUC.
But with nearly 80,000 uniformed and civilian personnel currently in the field and a major new mission authorized in Sudan, the UN is already struggling to find enough troops to go around. Some UN officials fear that adverse publicity, or actions that might appear to infringe on sensitive issues of national sovereignty, could persuade some of the largest contributors to withdraw from or scale back on peacekeeping operations.
With the need for blue helmets at an historic high -- and many Northern countries more reluctant than in the past to provide troops -- peacekeeping officials are understandably concerned about reducing the number of participating governments. “We could score a quick public relations success by naming countries,” Ms. Lute acknowledged. “But we would sacrifice the long-term engagement with the member states to secure their cooperation and commitment” to the reform proposals.
‘Boys will be boys’
The UN is also struggling with aspects of military culture that can contribute to sexual misconduct by peacekeepers, including the implicit tolerance of abuses by commanders and civilian administrators in the field. Soldiers are, of necessity, trained to be aggressive, physically dominant and willing to take risks. It has long been recognized that such battlefield virtues can spill over into relations between troops and local civilian populations -- particularly when large numbers of young men are removed from the cultural and legal constraints back home. There is also a tendency among many troop commanders to look the other way at some forms of sexual contact between soldiers and civilians, such as prostitution. Such liaisons are often quietly accepted as an inevitable part of military life.
The UN, however, is now confronting these permissive attitudes and seeking to instil a climate of strict discipline in all peacekeeping missions, in part by reinforcing the duty of peacekeepers to protect civilians. “The blue helmet has become black and blue through self-inflicted wounds,” says Ms. Lute. “We will not sit still until the lustre of that blue helmet is restored.”
Training in military codes of conduct and respect for the rights of civilians in conflict situations is already a feature of military training in virtually every army in the world. In addition, the UN also requires troop contributing countries to provide further training to their peacekeepers in UN rules and policies -- including the zero-tolerance policy and their additional responsibilities as representatives of the international community. UN training programmes on the rights and vulnerabilities of women and girls in conflicts have been strengthened in recent years in response to past abuses, as part of an effort within the UN to promote greater gender balance and awareness throughout peace operations.
Although UN personnel rules and peacekeeping codes have been steadily strengthened in recent years, enforcement of such rules for peacekeeping troops, including punishment for violations, is the responsibility of individual contributing countries.
The recent revelations demonstrate, however, that training programmes and codes of conduct have only limited impact in the absence of rigorous enforcement by military and civilian leaders. As recently as 2002 allegations surfaced that UN personnel and humanitarian workers at UN-administered camps in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea were forcing refugee women and young children to provide sexual favours in exchange for desperately needed food, medicines and other relief supplies. The charges -- strikingly similar to those made in the DRC -- were also investigated by OIOS, but dropped for lack of evidence. The investigation was criticized by some human rights and aid agencies as an effort by the UN to downplay the incidents.
Allegations of sexual misconduct by UN peacekeeping personnel go back at least as far as the 1992–93 deployment in Cambodia. Those allegations, largely concerning solicitation of prostitution, were dismissed at the time by the mission head with the often-cited observation that “boys will be boys.” The UN mission in the former Yugoslavia also became embroiled in allegations that some of its military and civil police personnel were involved in human trafficking and prostitution rings fuelled by the presence of large numbers of UN and NATO peacekeepers in the region. Although a number of people were dismissed, a formal investigation again found insufficient evidence of widespread wrongdoing.
Unlike in the past, the UN has moved aggressively and publicly to confront the current scandal and prevent recurrences. But even those steps, the DRC’s UN representative to the UN asserted, have come very late. Speaking to UN Radio in late January, Ambassador Atoki Ileka said that the government first raised concerns about misconduct by UN personnel in 2000, but “nothing had been done. Now it’s come to the stage where it has become a scandal. Because it has become a scandal that is known worldwide . . . the UN is taking steps to solve it.”
Yet the ambassador also praised MONUC for its role in the DRC peace process, noting that the blue helmets helped end a war in which tens of thousands of Congolese women and girls were brutally raped, assaulted and enslaved by various Congolese military forces. Part of the tragedy, he continued, is that “for many of the Congolese, they have no more confidence in the UN. That confidence we have to restore. . . . The UN has a crucial role to play in the DRC and it’s important that we tackle the issue and solve it as soon as possible.”
The Democratic Republic of the Congo’s minister of women and family affairs, Ms. Fabiola Faida Mwangilwa, says that it is vital to assist the country’s tens of thousands of victims of sexual violence, often committed by Congolese warring factions -- but also by some UN peacekeepers. “The women of the DRC are demanding reparations,” she told Africa Renewal. “It is not just about repatriating a soldier, it is about a crime that was committed.” In addition to sustaining physical and emotional injuries, many of the girls have been ostracized by their families and communities, she says.
There is also the issue of children born of assaults or exploitative sex. “The UN must take some responsibility for these babies,” she continued. “When [assaults] are committed by belligerent armed groups, it is somewhat comprehensible. When the soldiers are there to protect the population, it is very disturbing.”
The DRC’s government and the UN have established a joint initiative to help victims of sexual exploitation and abuse rebuild their lives. The initiative focuses on:
- medical care
- psychological counselling and treatment
- relocation and reintegration
- child welfare and education.
Belgium has contributed € 8.7 mn to the initiative, enabling it to operate in three of the country’s 11 provinces. Additional donor support, Ms. Mwangilwa concluded, is urgently needed.