On Friday, the United Nations released an exceedingly disturbing report that showed the number of allegations of sexual exploitation or abuse against UN staff increased in 2015. There were 99 allegations across the UN system, with the majority–69–involving personnel from UN peacekeeping missions.
Sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers has been an ongoing concern for the United Nations — and most importantly for the people that peacekeepers are meant to protect — for at least a decade. Back in the early 2000s, the UN adopted a “Zero Tolerance” policy to improve accountability for sex crimes by peacekeeper. Nearly a decade ago, the Jordanian diplomat Prince Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein, who now serves as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, issued a scathing report that laid out concrete steps member states could take to reduce sexual crimes by UN peacekeepers. There were some marginal improvements, but no bold action taken.
The response by member states has so far been insufficient
At the heart of this problem is that the credible threat of prosecution for sexual abuse, which might deter would-be predators, is inconsistent across UN peacekeeping missions. That is because UN peacekeepers operate under the legal authority of their own country. So, Cameroonian peacekeepers are subject to prosecution in Cameroon. German peacekeepers are subject to the German judicial system. To be sure, in no country that contributes troops are sexual abuse and exploitation legal. Rather, the willingness and ability of these member states to investigate their own soldiers varies greatly across countries. That, in turn, can create a culture of permissiveness. The report puts it bluntly: “Failure to pursue criminal accountability for sex crimes is tantamount to impunity”
This is where the report is valuable. It names and shames countries that are not living up to their obligations as troop contributing countries and lays out some concrete steps that member states could take to stop impunity for these kinds of crimes.
The two boldest recommendations in this report are on-site courts martial and a new international convention on peacekeeper criminal accountability. These ideas have been around since at least the 2005 report from Prince Zeid, but so far member states have slow-walked their implementation.
The convention would be tantamount to a treaty that creates some sort of extra-territorial jurisdiction for UN courts to try soldiers for crimes committed as blue helmets. The idea is attractive in theory, but politically challenging because it would require member states to consent to have their soldiers tried in some sort of UN court.
The on-site courts martial is potentially more attractive to troop contributing countries and the victims of sex crimes because it would involve a trial set at the scene of the crime, but under the legal jurisdiction of the troop contributing countries. For example, Uruguayan peacekeepers accused of sexual abuse in Haiti would face trial in Port au Prince, but with Uruguayan prosecutors and judges trying the case under Uruguayan law. In theory, this should satisfy a local demand for justice while hewing to the political reality that governments will not put their troops under any sort of foreign criminal jurisdiction. In practice, this will be very difficult to pull off unless member states are fully committed to making on-site courts-martial work.
At the very least, peacekeepers can — and should — be repatriated with greater frequency. To that end, there is already some movement. Some 800 Republic of Congo peacekeepers were sent home last month after allegations of abuse in their ranks in the Central African Republic. Such a move not only shames the troop contributing country, but also hurts these troops contributing countries in the pocket book; governments are reimbursed around $1,300 by the UN for each troop deployed, per month.
On Saturday, less than 24 hours after the report was released, an American official told Reuters that the USA is planning on circulating a Security Council resolution calling for the repatriation of troops from countries with patterns of abuse, or where allegations of sexual abuse are not credibly investigated. An official from the US mission to the UN told Reuters that they would use “the leverage of repatriation to really get member states … to take this with the utmost seriousness that they should.” A vote on that resolution could come as early as this week.
The fact that this report is already spurring action from key member states is encouraging. But if member states are really serious about stopping abuse within their ranks, they need to embrace the boldest recommendations of this report. Everyone agrees that sexual abuse and exploitation by UN peacekeepers should not be tolerated. This report offers a detailed plan to turn that sentiment into a reality.