UN Police in South Sudan. Credit: DPKO

The USA Sets Sights on Stopping UN Peacekeeper Sexual Abuse

For the better part of three months, there has been a steady stream of horrific news, mostly from the Central African Republic, about UN Peacekeepers sexually abusing people they are meant to protect. As recently as last month, there were over 100 allegations against UN peacekeepers, and also French forces deployed to CAR.

These allegations are piling up, with no end in site.  And as they do, they are creating a crisis for UN peacekeeping.

Stopping the sexual exploitation and abuse by UN peacekeepers of the people they are meant to serve is increasingly becoming a priority of US government.

In New York this week, during the first-ever public hearings for the next UN Secretary General, the United States used it’s turn at the microphone to ask each candidate about steps they would take to ensure accountability for peacekeeper abuse. Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill today the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a lengthy hearing with a number of Obama administration officials and outside UN observers to discuss strategies to root out this abuse.

For the USA, effective UN Peacekeeping is an important foreign policy priority. The USA contributes very few personnel to UN peacekeeping, but it is the largest single funder of UN peacekeeping, paying for about 28% of the cost of each mission. Also, as a veto wielding member of the Security Council, the USA is one of the few countries in the world with ultimate authority over whether or not to deploy peacekeepers and ensuring that they live up to their mandate.

Over the last ten years, under both President Bush and President Obama, UN peacekeeping has undergone a dramatic expansion. There are now over 100,000 personnel deployed to over 16 missions in the world. Missions in places like Darfur, Mali, Congo and elsewhere are increasingly complex, having to both maintain peace agreements and also fending off attacks from terrorist groups and other spoilers.

Earlier this year, as yet more allegations of abuse came to light, the USA sponsored a Security Council resolution tightening measures to ensure that peacekeepers accused of gross misconduct are swiftly repatriated, and that once repatriated governments launch credible criminal investigations. Meanwhile, the Secretary General appointed a former deputy director of the Department of Homeland Security, Jane Holl Lute, as his special coordinator on improving the United Nations response to sexual exploitation and abuse. “This plague of sexual abuse by peacekeepers must stop,” UN Ambassador Samantha Power said in a statement issued after yet more allegations came to light. “These infernal abuses defy the very values the UN was created to uphold.”

A peacekeeper in Liberia. Doing  it right. Credit: DPKO
A peacekeeper in Liberia. Doing it right. Credit: DPKO

And it’s not just the Administration. Congress is Taking Note

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee today held a three hour hearing in which five witnesses, three from the Obama administration and two outside government, discussed ways in which the USA could help the United Nations reform UN peacekeeping to make it more responsive to sexual abuse and exploitation allegations. At the core of this discussion were ways the the US government, and Congress, could pressure the UN and member states to ensure that UN peacekeepers are not immune from prosecution should they face credible allegations of abuse.

The heart of the problem is that the credible threat of prosecution for sexual abuse, which might deter would-be predators, is inconsistent across UN peacekeeping missions. UN peacekeepers operate under the legal authority of their own country, and some countries do not have the capacity or the will to investigate their troops when accused of misconduct. This leads to situations in which whole contingents can operate under de-facto immunity.

“The resistance has not come from the Secretary General, but resistance has been from troop contributing countries who don’t want to give up jurisdictional control over punishing their troops,” US Ambassador to the UN for management Isobel Coleman, told the Senate Foreign relations committee.

From the UN’s perspective, the core political challenge is to at once convince troop contributing countries to more credibly investigate alleged crimes (and threaten consequences if they do not), while at the same time attract even more countries to send their troops on UN peacekeeping missions.

Peter Yeo, Vice President of the Better World Campaign, summed up the dilemma in his remarks to the committee.

There are certain to be consequences. One year from now, for example, the Security Council may choose to intervene in a country facing a crisis. With lives on the line, the international community will look to the UN to quickly deploy peacekeepers. Only a few countries will offer troops, and of those, some will have checkered human rights records. While there will be justifiable demands to deploy a robust force, the UN must hold firm and reject any nation with a record of widespread or systemic abuse. At the same time, this does not mean that the international community should accept a weak response to conflict and mass atrocities. Rather, we must demand that more countries shoulder the load and do so in an ethical and principled way. As it stands, there is a severe shortage of well-trained troops for a growing number of increasingly complex, dangerous missions. The dramatic increase in the size and scope of peacekeeping missions approved by the UN Security Council, together with the near-withdrawal from peacekeeping by European and American forces, has taxed the ability of the UN to recruit the best trained and equipped troops. If peacekeeping is to ultimately free itself from the stain of sexual abuse, the responsibility must not sit with UN alone; other member states need to answer the call.

To be sure the hearing today was at times critical of the United Nations. But it further demonstrated to the United Nations that the USA is keenly focused on making UN Peacekeeping more effective–and rooting out the bad actors who are undermining the effectiveness of the UN. “I want to underscore the importance of UN Peacekeeping missions,” Senator Ben Cardin, the ranking Democrat in the committee said. “Overwhelmingly, they are conducting their missions with honor. ”

Even Bob Corker, the Republican head of the committee (who had earlier insinuated that he would not let UN peacekeepers near his own family) was conciliatory to the Obama administration officials on the panel.  “We want to assist you in penalizing countries that don’t take action, he said. “We continue to want to work with you.”

Going forward, the key question for Congress and the administration will be how they use the diplomatic tools at their disposal to at once punish and deter peacekeepers from committing sexual abuse while not undermining the effectiveness of UN peacekeeping around the world.