The UN peacekeeping operations face dual charges: triggering a cholera epidemic and massive corruption. The UN and its members must tackle these issues or risk damaging all peacekeeping missions, writes Thorsten Benner.
In October 2010, a cholera outbreak started in Haiti. Until now, it has claimed almost 9000 lives in a country where no cases of the disease had been recorded for 150 years. Despite efforts to contain it, the epidemic still kills about 1000 people per year.
Three years later, earlier this month, a Boston-based NGO filed suit in Federal District Court in Manhattan against the United Nations. The group claims that a UN peacekeeping contingent from Nepal was the source of the epidemic and that the UN should have known that its peacekeepers ran the risk of bringing cholera to a country. The NGO demands compensation for the cholera victims.
On the very same day the organization filed its case in New York, the UK chapter of Transparency International published a report accusing peacekeeping operations of widespread corruption. The report called on right-wing former US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, as a key witness. "We should be entitled," said Bolton, "to have effective peacekeeping without waste, without corruption, and without mismanagement."
Predictably, the allegations led UN critics to condemn the organization wholesale. It's "hard to imagine that a supposedly benign institution exists that in its practice is more contemptible than the UN," US writer David Rieff asserted.
If this kind of criticism sticks, it risks undermining the whole peacekeeping enterprise in which almost 120,000 soldiers, police and civilian experts try to help stabilize 16 conflict-ridden countries. That's why it is all the more important that both the UN bureaucracy and UN member states address these charges head-on.
For the UN Secretariat, this means abandoning its policy of legalistic stonewalling even as epidemiologists have identified the Nepali battalion as the likely cause for the cholera outbreak. The Secretariat is right to assert that the legal complaints such as the New York case are "non-receivable" because a 1946 convention guarantees the UN immunity for its actions. But if it is sure about its legal immunity, it should be easy for the Secretariat to accept the political responsibility on behalf of the UN for the outbreak in light of the overwhelming evidence.
As the Washington Post has argued, immunity "does not justify a policy of institutional indifference." Former UN chief peacekeeper Jean-Marie Guéhenno asserted in a similar vein that the UN "needs to come clean" on the cholera crisis. An apology to the victims by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon would be a good start and could go a long way.
Involve UN members
It would also give Ban the credibility to kick the ball back into the court of UN member states, primarily the Security Council that authorizes peacekeeping missions, and to the major troop-contributing countries. As it stands, the UN Secretariat has no full disciplinary authority over the so-called blue helmets. Precisely because member states do not fully entrust their soldiers under UN command, they have a special responsibility.
This includes addressing the cholera epidemic in Haiti among other things by improving the water and sanitation system on the island. UN Secretary General Ban last year announced an ambitious 10- year $2.2 billion (1.6 billion euros) initiative to combat cholera in Haiti with $500 million (365 million euros) needed for the first two years alone.
But UN member states have failed to provide enough funding for it. So it is ironic if not disingenuous for the Security Council to be "urging the United Nations entities" to combat cholera in its latest resolution on October 10. After all, many key potential funders sit on the Security Council.
Address accountability issues
More broadly, the cholera case and the corruption allegations are reminders that the UN needs to improve its accountability system. That includes whistleblower protection for those alerting to corruption and other cases of wrongdoing. As The Economist put it, "in theory the United Nations cherishes and protects whistleblowers. In practice, a clubby atmosphere prevails in which dissent counts as disloyalty." The case of James Wasserstrom, a UN official posted to the Kosovo mission, exemplifies this and has been a huge embarrassment for the UN Secretariat.
Another aspect is criminal accountability for cases of sexual abuse and other offenses committed by blue helmets. Until now, the culprits have often been able to escape tough sanctions by simply being sent back to their home countries without these countries committing to investigate the cases under uniform standards.
Better preventive measures such as training about corruption issues are also crucial. What's more, at the most basic level, we need better data on the extent of the problem in the UN compared to other organizations. Unfortunately though, these are not top priority issues for member states and UN officials in New York.
While it should not be surprising that there are cases of misconduct when UN members send highly diverse teams into tough circumstances, if the issues continue to be neglected, the credibility of the whole organization is at risk.
Thorsten Benner (@thorstenbenner) is director of the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi) in Berlin and co-author of “The New World of UN Peace Operations”.