UN peacekeepers have again been accused of sexually abusing people they are assigned to protect. The global campaign Code Blue is seeking an end to impunity for UN personnel — but re-establishing trust will take time.
United Nations (UN) peacekeepers have been accused of multiple cases of sexual abuse — the most recent case involving South African UN peacekeepers serving in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The allegations have called into question the reputation of the UN, as well as impunity for UN personnel. It is against this background that the Code Blue campaign wants to end the sexual abuse committed by UN peacekeeping personnel. DW spoke with Paula Donovan, co-director of the Code Blue campaign.
DW: Briefly tells us about your work as a campaigner and allegations of sexual abuse committed by UN peacekeeping troops?
Paula Donovan: The Code Blue campaign is focused on ending impunity for sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeeping personnel. This crisis is often described by the United Nations as caused by the military personnel who are contributed by various member states. In truth, most of the allegations of sexual abuse are actually made against nonmilitary personnel, people who work for the United Nations. So when the personnel are accused of these crimes, they are treated as though they had simply broken the United Nations' rules. They're subjected to an administrative investigation and may be fired from their jobs. But they're not referred for criminal investigation and prosecution. The UN cannot simply allow its non-military personnel to get away with these crimes. That's why we propose a special court mechanism to investigate and try non-military peacekeeping personnel.
Five UN peacekeepers from South Africa face allegations of sexually exploiting women. In addition to that, French peacekeeping troops in the Central African Republic have also been accused of sexually abusing young boys in the past. Why has the United Nations been reluctant to investigate these allegations?
In every instance when the UN or the local authorities learn that any person has been accused of sexualized crimes, they absolutely must be referred to the appropriate jurisdiction. In the case of those South Africans, my understanding is that the government which has jurisdiction over its own soldiers is following up and is conducting the investigation. There shouldn't be any involvement by the United Nations in that procedure other than to absolutely ensure that the contributing government is fulfilling its obligation. If there are prosecutions, then the UN has to follow up and ensure that the countries are fulfilling their obligations by maintaining discipline and justice over the soldiers.
Nevertheless, in previous cases, the UN has been pushing for investigations. That was the case under Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and continues with Antonio Guterres. But still, there is no change.
It seems that the United Nations is most concerned about its own reputation. It's in their interest if allegations are simply dismissed. They quickly dismiss cases claiming that there isn't enough evidence to proceed. Sometimes they sort of lazily refer their cases against military back to the troop-contributing country. But then they don't follow up on it the way they should. In the case of non-military personnel, they don't refer the personnel to local authorities at all. That's why the Code Blue campaign is insisting that this needs to be taken out of the hands of the UN bureaucracy. Organizations and member states have to create mechanisms that are completely separate and neutral and external from the United Nations.
Have you brought your concerns to the attention of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres?
Secretary-General Guterres is well aware of our concerns and our very tangible proposals. We have not been successful in getting a meeting with him to describe to him personally what the Code Blue campaign can propose. Frankly, this is not a new problem for anyone at the United Nations and it certainly isn't for Secretary-General Guterres. He was the High Commissioner for Refugees for ten years before he became secretary-general. Mr. Guterres certainly had 10 years as the head of UNHCR to understand and solve this problem. But UNHCR remains the UN agency with the greatest number of allegations made against its own personnel. Whatever Mr. Guterres was attempting to do to prevent and address sexual exploitation and abuse did not work. He needs new solutions.
How can peacekeepers be trusted to maintain peace if they've been accused of sexual abuses against people they are supposed to protect?
The faith in peacekeeping is being undermined not only by those who are sexually exploiting the populations, but also by the UN's inept and wilful response to these allegations that simply isn't bringing justice. The UN has not been able to persuade the public that they care more about the populations than they do about their own personnel and their own reputation. The whole concept of peacekeeping, which is absolutely essential to the world security, is being undermined — either by attacking the populations or by supporting and allowing impunity to reign. The UN should rather allow true justice to prevail through an external independent body.
The interview was conducted by Isaac Mugabi.
Paula Donovan is co-director of the Code Blue campaign, which is part of the organization AIDS-Free World. She is an expert on HIV, infant feeding, sexual violence and women's rights.