Peacekeepers' sex scandals linger

On screen, two senior U.N. officials in Bosnia are arguing about firing Kathy Bolkovac, an American police officer battling to stop peacekeepers from both trafficking in young women and frequenting the brothels where they became indentured prostitutes.

“It is a point of honour for me that the U.N. is not remembered for raping the very people we must protect,” says Madeleine Rees, a spirited human rights advocate played by Vanessa Redgrave.

“Those girls are whores of war,” growls the male bureaucrat heading the U.N. mission. “It happens; I will not dictate for morality.”

Ms Rees, the director of the human rights office in Sarajevo from 1998 to 2006, said that dispute in the movie The Whistleblower, recently released in the U.S., was lifted almost verbatim from a running argument she had around 2001.

A decade later, a string of sex scandals from Bosnia to the Democratic Republic of Congo to Haiti involving peacekeeping missions has forced the U.N. to change the way it handles accusations of trafficking, rape and related crimes. But the issue still bedevils the institution — a point underscored by the skirmishing among senior U.N. officials over whether to embrace the movie or try to ignore it.

The issue has certainly not gone away. This week, hundreds of Haitians protested in support of an 18-year-old who said he was sexually assaulted by peacekeepers from Uruguay on a U.N. base, eliciting a furious rebuke from Haiti's President and an apology from Uruguay.

The U.N. has focused serious attention on addressing sexual crimes among the more than 120,000 personnel it has deployed in 16 peacekeeping missions globally, including widespread training. But the question that diplomats, advocates and even some U.N. officials ask is why the efforts still lag in terms of investigating accusations and, most important, making sure those who send troops and contractors abroad hold them accountable.

Human rights experts and some member states fault the U.N. for leaving too much of the job of enforcing its “zero tolerance” policy announced in 2003 to the countries contributing troops. Individual cases and any disciplinary action are rarely made public.

“They never come up with actual facts; they never come up with actual cases,” Ms Bolkovac said.

She won a wrongful dismissal case in 2003 against a subsidiary of Virginia-based DynCorp International, which was contracted by the State Department to provide police officers for the U.N. peacekeeping force in Bosnia. But Ms Bolkovac says she has never been hired by another peacekeeping mission. (DynCorp issued a statement noting that The Whistleblower was a work of fiction and that new owners had since enacted their own zero tolerance policy.)

U.N. officials brandish the statistics published on the organisation's peacekeeping website as evidence of transparency. The numbers, the source of which is somewhat vague, indicate that cases dropped from 108 substantiated accusations of sexual exploitation and abuse in 2007 to 85 in 2008, then to 63 in 2009, 33 last year and just five so far in 2011.

But more than 200 such accusations remain unresolved, and the U.N. annual report on such crimes for 2010 noted that sexual activity with minors and non-consensual sex represented more than half of reported accusations little changed since 2008. Cases have come to light where peacekeepers paid children $1 or with candy to make a rape seem like prostitution.

Activists and some diplomats condemn the U.N. as timid, with internal policing particularly weak under Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Mr. Ban waged an extended feud over hiring with the head of internal oversight before she left in 2010, leaving dozens of investigator jobs empty. Senior officials admit that its investigators have the mandate to do more to track sexual abuse cases.

The U.N. pays $1,024 a month per soldier, making peacekeeping a profitable venture for many poorer nations. In June, member states voted themselves a roughly $100 bonus per soldier per month for the coming year. The U.N. lost an opportunity by not hinging the bonuses on better cooperation, advocates contend.

“Member states are not reliable enough to do a good job on their own, especially in the early stages of a military investigation,” said Prince Zeid Raad Zeid al-Hussein, the Jordanian ambassador and the author of a damning study of sexual exploitation in peacekeeping in 2005 as special adviser on the issue under the previous Secretary-General. Mr. Ban never filled the post.

Member states rejected the study's recommendations to establish a coordinated, nimble investigation and discipline process. Soldiers serving the U.N. are subject to their own countries' military justice. The only wrist slap often faced by contractors is being sent home, because they enjoy immunity as U.N. employees.

Soldiers linked to crimes are often repatriated. In April, 16 peacekeepers from Benin were sent home from Ivory Coast more than a year after Save the Children U.K. found that the soldiers traded food for sex with poor, underage girls. More than 100 troops from Sri Lanka were sent home from Haiti in 2007 because of widespread accusations of sex with minors.

In many cases, however, the final outcome remains a mystery.

“The U.N. is not even a player in the investigation, doesn't know the evidence and has no way to follow up with the way the military decides to deal with this issue,” Mr. Zeid said. “We, the member states, have by and large failed to do what I had hoped we would do.”

The U.S. State Department's 2010 report on human trafficking criticised the U.N., saying, “No comprehensive information is available on the number of cases of disciplinary action.”

A leaked memo from the U.N. human rights office in New York reflected the divisions over openness. In a lengthy discussion about how to address The Whistleblower, Kiyotaka Akasaka, the head of public information, and Patricia O'Brien, the top lawyer, argued for playing down the movie and certainly not screening it at the U.N. headquarters, the memo said. But the executive director of the newly created agency U.N. Women, Michelle Bachelet, the former President of Chile, argued for a more open approach, it said, along with several others.

Mr. Ban wrote to the film's director, Larysa Kondracki, saying he had watched the movie with his senior advisers and was “pained” by it. “Your film points to one area where our work left questions behind,” he said.

A public screening will be held at the U.N. soon, he told her. — New York Times News Service

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Printable version | Oct 25, 2021 1:34:39 AM |

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