Year after year, since 2005, the United Nations has proclaimed its “zero-tolerance” policy for UN peacekeepers sexually exploiting or even raping the people they’re sent to protect. Year after year, the abuse continues. One of the more recent horrors took place last year in Haiti, when five UN peacekeepers allegedly pulled an 18-year-old Haitian into a UN base, pinned him down on a mattress, beat and raped him. Part of the scene, in which he screams for help while being assaulted, was caught on video.
Haiti’s president protested. The five peacekeepers, all from Uruguay, were sent home to face prosecution. Uruguay’s ambassador to the UN apologized. But now comes a report from ABC News — “Haiti Outrage: UN Soldiers from Sex Assault Video Freed.” ABC’s Brian Ross reports that the case has apparently stalled. It’s been put on “indefinite hold.” And a UN official has confirmed to ABC that the former peacekeepers have been turned loose. It seems the Uruguayan prosecution could not find the victim, though ABC’s Ross notes that his name and address are well known, “if there is any interest in finding him.”
It gets worse. ABC’s report includes an interview with a UN peacekeeping official, an American, Assistant Secretary-General Anthony Banbury. Asked if there’s any way to ensure that UN peacekeepers accused of sexual exploitation and assault will face justice, he simply admits, “Sometimes we can, sometimes we can’t.” In an earlier incident, when more than 100 Sri Lankan peacekeepers in Haiti were expelled for sexually exploiting underage girls, there was no sign they were ever prosecuted. That’s been largely the way of it, as cases of sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers have turned up again and again, in places such as the Congo, Bosnia, Cambodia, Liberia, the Ivory Coast, Burundi, Haiti, and South Sudan.
To be fair, the UN has engaged in its own brand of loquacious effort to end this abuse. There are multiple UN web sites dedicated to the subject. There are periodic assertions of a “zero tolerance” policy, and statements deploring the distinctly non-zero persistence of the problem. There are programs and strategies, three-pronged, four-pillared, and so forth. Yet the cases roll in. The UN now provides “statistics” on the peacekeeper sexual-abuse front, though these do not feature prominently on the peacekeeping web site. You have to hunt around a bit to find such items as the graph for “Status of Investigations: Sexual Exploitation and Abuse.” Or the appalling subset of those statistics: “Sexual Exploitation and Abuse Allegations Per Mission Involving Minors.”
The reason this abuse persists is not just some ghastly quirk of fate, or a need for the UN to add a few more pillars to its multi-pillared conduct and discipline program. The problem is built into UN peacekeeping itself, because there is no reliable system of justice at work here. The UN is highly secretive about the identities of the alleged offenders. When they get caught, they are simply dispatched back to the member states that sent them. And the UN keeps employing peacekeeping troops from countries that make no serious effort to prosecute the offenders. The UN web site shows that as of last November, the UN was employing 1,108 peacekeeping troops from Sri Lanka — despite Sri Lanka’s apparent indifference to whether its peacekeepers had been sexually exploiting Haitian underage girls they’d been sent to protect. The same chart shows the UN employing 2,323 troops from Uruguay — which has apparently failed to organize a case against its five peacekeepers videoed in mid-abuse, at least one of them with his pants down, assaulting a Haitian teenager.
Advocates of UN peacekeeping like to argue that it delivers good value for the price. The real story here is that the UN, with its tolerance for peacekeeping troops from countries that don’t mind a bout of rape here or there, is doing a hideous disservice to the people it claims to be protecting. That ought to be of interest to the U.S. administration which forks over 27.1% of the UN’s more than $7 billion annual peacekeeping budget, and to Congress, which appropriates the almost $2 billion in taxpayer dollars that thus pours annually into the UN peacekeeping till. That money does not go directly to individual peacekeepers. It gets paid out to the governments of member states that provide troops, and those governments decide what quality of solder they will send. If the UN is serious about its endlessly recited “zero tolerance” policy toward sexual exploitation and abuse — and the evidence so far suggests it is not — the obvious step is to stop employing troops from member states that let their soldiers get away with rape. Is that too much to ask?