UN peacekeepers and UN staff are still abusing the people they are meant to protect.
In the past four months, the UN said it received 70 allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation, involving UN and non-UN personnel working with its agencies and programmes. These involved 84 survivors, including 46 women, 17 girls (under 18 years of age), 12 females (ages were unknown), one boy (under the age of 18), and five males of unknown ages. The alleged perpetrators include at least 80 men. In the first quarter of this year, the UN said it had received 54 allegations.
Remember, these are allegations of abuse and exploitation as received by the UN. We know that the number of cases and incidents are probably much higher. These are, after all, societies struggling with conflict and lawlessness; to expect all survivors to come forward and report their incident to the very organisation tasked with protecting them is ludicrous.
The UN is perfectly aware that such incidents damage the effectiveness of its work, and its legitimacy as an organisation. But the UN continues to think that “damage control” and protecting its reputation lies at the heart of the matter.
Little wonder then that while it might spout a “victim-first” or “zero-tolerance” policy, it remains obsessed with improving data collection and showcasing a willingness to be more transparent in the matter.
Data collection and transparency are important, but the key issues remain something else: impunity and a lack of accountability for the peacekeepers who are guilty.
The UN is said to have received about 1700 allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation by peacekeepers over the past 15 years. Only 53 uniformed peacekeepers and one international civilian peacekeeper have been imprisoned for their crimes, according to a new documentary released by PBS last week.
Since peacekeepers enjoy immunity in the host country and the UN cannot prosecute, the responsibility falls on troop-contributing countries to hold their soldiers to account for abuse (rape) or exploitation (soliciting paid sex).
The reporting process is so long and so convoluted that by the time any investigation takes place, it is often too late to collect evidence, alleged perpetrators have been “rotated” and the cases hang in limbo. In other words, it is unlikely the 84 survivors who suffered some type of abuse or exploitation in the past four months will ever see justice.
The impunity allows UN peacekeepers, like UN civilian staff, to believe they are above any norm and any law. Rape, abuse and exploitation are manifestations of power and privilege; if there are no consequences for your actions, why would you stop exercising your ability to exploit?
In reporting on the issue over the past two years, I have found two recurring themes that often left me bewildered and distraught. First, it was the UN staff’s refusal to talk openly about the violence meted out on the host population by their colleagues. While I could “understand” the “PR speak” of communication officers working for Department of Peacekeeping Operations whose job, it would appear, is to protect the brand.
I could never understand the refusal of others working at the UN Children’s Fund, UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs or UN High Commissioner for Refugees to speak plainly and honestly about the abuse in the field.
Expat humanitarian workers live dangerously close lives: everyone knows what is going on.
There were people at organisations I’d be talking to about hunger, violence, child soldiers in the Central African Republic, who would fall silent when I asked for advice or detail on the abuse of peacekeepers in the Central African Republic. How can a humanitarian deflect from the inhumanity meted over another human being, especially one living in such precarious conditions?
Second, I often heard about the superiority complex of peacekeepers and aid workers. Is it surprising that a bunch of entitled do-gooders would come to “dark” places and end up acting out in perverse ways?
As has been revealed in the past year, an entire spectrum of humanitarian and aid agencies (not just peacekeepers) have been implicated in cases of sexual abuse, exploitation, including rape and harassment. From Save the Children, to the Red Cross, to Oxfam - the most prestigious, hard working of organisations have been shown to have dealt poorly with cases within their own organisation.
Just as peacekeepers are “rotated”, so too, are “predators” moved between aid agencies. In so doing, these aid agencies, like peacekeepers, put their reputation before survivors of abuse. They also put their colleagues before their task which is to uplift, rehabilitate or assist those living in abject poverty or in distress.
Their refusal to talk or hold properly accountable those accused of such crimes is plainly and simply just another manifestation of the “boys club” that has created so many of the conflicts and awful conditions in the first place; the instinct is to protect the tribe, the damage to the civilian host population seen as unfortunate collateral.
All of which sounds like a familiar problem to me.
It is time to treat rape and sexual exploitation in the humanitarian sector as the structural problem that it is.
Like colonisation, racism, rampant capitalism or any type of oppression and exploitation, it has to be addressed, dismantled with fervour. Everything else would akin to sugarcoating.
* Azad Essa is a journalist based in New York City. He is also the author of Zuma’s Bastard (Two Dogs Books)
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.