Why It is So Hard to Pursue Justice Against Peacekeepers Accused of Sexual Misconduct

By now you may have heard about an accusation of terrible cruelty on the part of Uruguayan peacekeepers in Haiti. A group of men are alleged to have raped a young Haitian man, aged 18.  Apparently there is even grainy cell phone video camera footage of the alleged incident in which the peacekeepers are shown laughing.

This is just awful on so many levels.   The Uruguayan president even wrote a public letter of apology to Haiti’s president, saying the soldiers in question brought shame upon themselves and their country.

Under the UN’s Zero Tolerance Policy for sexual abuse, the peacekeepers were repatriated after a quick investigation.  That’s the way it is supposed to work.  The problem now is that there is absolutely no way for the UN to guarantee that the accused will be properly investigated and prosecuted by Uruguayan authorities.

The most the UN can do in these situations is send these creeps home,which it has done. Typical status of forces agreement between troop contributing countries, the UN and the host country do not permit local authorities from launching criminal prosecutions against peacekeepers. If they were civilians, the Secretary General could theoretically waive their diplomatic immunity and they would be liable for prosecution in Haiti.  But in the case of soldiers, they are offered certain legal protections by the SOFA.  If and when there are credible accusations of misconduct, the UN can only repatriate the troops and hope that local authorities launch their own investigation. (It is not like UN member states would ever agree to a UN Courts Martial System — could you imagine that kind of treaty passing in the UN Senate, let alone countries that regularly contribute troops to peacekeeping missions?)

In the end, the most the Secretary General is issue public statements like this one yesterday in order to put pressure on national authorities.

Eduardo del Buey, Deputy Spokesperson for the Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, said a preliminary probe carried out by the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) “determined that it was necessary to instigate a full and thorough investigation” into the alleged abuses committed in Port-Salut.

“Under the procedures agreed between the UN and troop-contributing countries, it is now the responsibility of the Government of Uruguay to conduct the investigation, with the full support of the UN,” he told reporters in New York.

There’s no easy solution here.  One idea put forth by the Jordanian UN ambassador Prince Zeid, a former peacekeeper who wrote an important report on this topic, is to amend the model status of forces agreement to include a formal assurance from the troop contributing countries that peacekeepers accused of misconduct will be investigated and punished as if the crimes occurred in the jurisdiction of the troop contributing state.  That’s still something less than a total obligation to arrest and prosecute rapists, but it’s probably as close as we can get while still respecting principles of sovereignty that underpin the international system.

Still, for the victims of these heinous actions that’s probably not enough.