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Torturers deployed as UN peacekeepers

May 21, 2024

Bangladesh and Sri Lanka sent officers implicated in torture and killings as UN peacekeepers, DW, Netra News, and Süddeutsche Zeitung reveal in a new investigation. And the UN is seemingly turning a blind eye.

UN Peacekeepers | Bangladeschische Soldaten der Mission der Vereinten Nationen in der DR Kongo (MONUSCO)
Image: AFP via Getty Images

At first glance, the photo is an innocuous one: Taken on a sunny day in 2022, a cheerful group of 12 men and women are huddled together, posing for a selfie. They're all dressed in military fatigues — their badges identify them as Egyptian, Indonesian and Bangladeshi officers. One man is wearing the light blue beret of a UN peacekeeper: The group has just finished their induction course for their stint at MONUSCO, the UN's mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Innocuous, that is, except for a bald man with glasses in the center of the photo. His arm casually draped around the shoulder of an Indonesian officer. A military source shared the picture pulled from social media with DW, Sweden-based investigative outlet Netra News, and German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung.

Before the officer was deployed to the UN mission, he was deputy director of the Intelligence Wing of an elite force in Bangladesh: The Rapid Action Battalion, RAB.

The force, made up of Bangladesh’s police and military, was set up in 2004 with the support of the US and others to fight terrorism and violent crime. But its brutally efficient methods meant it was soon mired in accusations of widespread human rights violations, leading its former backer, the US, to impose sanctions on RAB in 2021.

In an investigation published last year, DW and Netra News revealed that RAB commits torture, murder, and abductions and goes to great lengths to cover up its crimes. Its targets: alleged criminals, opposition activists, and human rights defenders.

Two whistleblowers report that its members seemingly operate with complicity from Bangladesh's highest political level, a claim the government rejected as "baseless and untrue."

Members of RAB in Dhaka
RAB was set up with the initial support of the US and others to fight crime and terrorism. Image: Netra News

RAB members sent to UN missions

A year after those revelations, DW, Netra News and Süddeutsche Zeitung can reveal that members of this infamous unit are seemingly being sent on peacekeeping missions: The deputy intelligence chief turned peacekeeper was not, we found, the only man who came from the group that several of our sources referred to as "death squad."

For months, DW and its partners conducted interviews with military and UN sources in Bangladesh and beyond; trawled through classified military files, deployment lists and painstakingly identified officers through Flickr, LinkedIn and Facebook.

One man's UN deployment was corroborated with the help of his daily running routes uploaded on a jogging app: for months, the avid jogger ran around Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, the seat of the UN's MINUSCA mission. In another picture, he posed for a selfie outside RAB's headquarters in Dhaka.

Two deputy heads of unit that runs torture cells among the peacekeepers

We found more than 100 RAB officers who went on peacekeeping missions, 40 of them within the last five years alone.

Three former RAB members who went on UN peacekeeping missions
Three men worked for RAB's Intelligence Wing. Image: DW

While we don’t have evidence that every single officer was implicated in crimes, at least three of them — Nayeem A., Hasan T. and Masud R. — worked for RAB's infamous Intelligence Wing, two as deputy directors. According to several sources, it is this unit that runs a secret network of torture cells across Bangladesh, some of them located in safe houses, others hidden deep inside RAB’s compounds. Survivors and military sources told DW and Netra News of beatings, mock executions, waterboarding and electric shocks.

"We have all the available tools," one former member of RAB explained. One particularly brutal method he witnessed was to place a detainee inside a container and heat it from below. "At some point, the temperature is untenable," and the detainee, he said matter-of-factly, "would speak up."

The torture cells, another source said agreed, are "where they get information from civilians."

A source in RAB told DW, Netra News and Süddeutsche Zeitung that both of the two deputy directors were implicated in crimes, such as torture and executions.

While the claim cannot be corroborated independently, several other sources confirmed that it was likely that deputy directors with command responsibility would have signed off on what was happening in the torture cells, or at the very least known what was happening.

And yet, they were later tasked, as peacekeepers, to protect vulnerable civilian communities. The idea of peacekeeping was born after the Second World War: a force at the behest of the international community made up of soldiers and police officers drawn from the UN's member states, sent by the Security Council when governments fail and countries descend into turmoil.

Currently, tens of thousands of peacekeepers are deployed globally, in conflicts and crises ranging from the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and the Central African Republic to Kosovo and Kashmir.

UN Peacekeepers in Lebanon in 1983
More than two million UN peacekeepers have been deployed worldwide. Image: picture-alliance/ dpa

Despite these lofty ideals, peacekeeping operations, individual soldiers and entire contingents have over the years been embroiled in scandals, which the UN has always been swift to condemn. Critics say peacekeeping missions have been ineffective, while those defending peacekeeping say they have saved countless lives.

In 2012, after several sexual abuse scandals by peacekeepers made headlines,  most notably of children in Haiti, the UN implemented a new human rights policy for its personnel.

Up to 'abusive government' to vet peacekeepers

While troop contributing countries generally continue to select and vet the military personnel they send to missions with the exception of Force Commanders and their deputies, they now have to attest for each soldier that they have not committed or are alleged to have committed any human rights violations. 

In the case of Bangladesh, that means that "they are asking an abusive government to then decide which officers are abusive or not," Meenakshi Ganguly, deputy director for South Asia at Human Rights Watch said in a phone call. 

Bangladesh's government, Ganguly explained, "does not seem to believe that people that commit human rights violations need to be prosecuted and held to account.” Indeed, few members of RAB have ever been prosecuted.

And that is why she, together with several other human rights organizations, both Bangladeshi and international, has long called for RAB to be banned entirely from peacekeeping operations. 

They are not the only ones to sound a warning: In August 2019, the Committee against Torture, a UN body made up of independent experts that monitor human rights in UN member states, published its report on Bangladesh.

Its authors voiced concern at "numerous reports" of cases in which members of RAB "have been credibly alleged to have committed torture, arbitrary arrests, unacknowledged detention, disappearances and extrajudicial killings of persons in their custody."

How the elite force RAB terrorizes the people of Bangladesh

'Grave concern'

One of the report's authors is Jens Modvig, a medical doctor who runs Dignity, the Danish Institute Against Torture, an NGO housed in an unassuming office block in Copenhagen.

While making coffee in the organization's small kitchen, he recalled the experts' "grave concern" at the reports of human rights abuses by Bangladesh's security forces. It was a term, he said, they had "not used lightly."

The Committee's recommendations, Modvig said, "was that former and current members of RAB should not be allowed to do service in peacekeeping operations."

And yet, our investigation shows nothing happened.

DW, Netra News and Süddeutsche Zeitung sent several requests for an on-camera interview to the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations. They were declined.

Instead, the UN agreed to respond in writing to the findings. "We do not have the resources to screen each and every person and have a long-standing policy that places specific responsibility on troop and police-contributing countries," a spokesman wrote.

In the case of Bangladesh, the spokesman went on to say that UN Peacekeeping "has continuously engaged bilaterally with national authorities to convey concerns about serious allegations of human rights violations by defense and security forces, in particular by members of RAB".

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UN susceptible to blackmail?

We did eventually find one man willing to go on the record: Andrew Gilmour, a former UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights. Today, he heads the Berghof Foundation in Berlin that advocates for global peace: a long time UN diplomat who, as he describes, picks his jackets according to an interview's topic and mood.

For a story about peacekeeping and human rights abuses, he donned a somber blue.

If he was still in the UN, he said, "I probably wouldn't be able to be this frank and to say we get some really pretty useless troops and some pretty brutal ones as well."

Bangladesh, he concluded, was far from a unique case: "It is not the first time that member states have put forward people with bad human rights records to serve in their battalions that they assign to the UN." At times, he said, "It can be entire contingents that were implicated in some action, repressing people in their own country, for example, and other times, it is individuals."

He stressed repeatedly that the UN was doing its best to prevent that from happening.

But he conceded that if the UN pushed countries too hard, there was a risk they might threaten to pull out their troops entirely. It was "pretty hard to do something about if the government of that member state is insisting on putting forward a contingent or an individual."

In one case, he recalled, "one country that was really important in contributing troops to a number of peacekeeping operations literally said, 'OK, we're going to pull out all together.'" And so, he explained, the UN's secretary-general at the time "had to basically go to that country and essentially apologize to the head of state."

Otherwise, four UN peacekeeping operations would have collapsed, Gilmour said.

French peacekeepers in Lebanon
Western countries play a smaller role in peacekeeping than they once did. Image: IMAGO/ABACAPRESS

His testimony seemed to point to one thing: when it comes to peacekeepers, the UN is seemingly susceptible to blackmail.

A UN source agreed. At even the slightest hint of criticism, officials in Bangladesh, one of the UN's major troop contributors, threatened to withdraw their troops. As of March of this year, about 6,000 Bangladeshi peacekeepers were actively deployed worldwide.

It's unclear, however, whether Bangladesh would actually go through with this threat and thus lose access to UN missions, which are lucrative both for individual soldiers and the countries deploying them.

According to government officials, Bangladesh has received more than $2.5 billion over the past 23 years. Individual peacekeepers receive a higher salary than they would back home.

The spokesperson for UN Peacekeeping rejected the claim that the UN is seemingly powerless when faced with threats: "The largest troop contributor at the moment contributes less than 10% of the 65,000 personnel deployed. Therefore, no single troop contributor can credibly threaten to undermine the viability of a peacekeeping operation by withdrawing all of their forces".

UN's hands seemingly tied

According to Gilmour, there is a reason why the UN's hands are seemingly tied. When he was "very, very young," the majority of UN peacekeepers came from places like Sweden and Ireland, he explained.

But over the years, as the Cold War drew to a close in the early 1990s, faced with deadlier missions, Western governments increasingly started to withdraw their troops from peacekeeping operations, preferring to pay for them instead.

Democratic governments had to weigh whether they could pay a certain blood toll, according to a political source from a Western European country with inside knowledge of the workings of the UN. If soldiers deployed to UN missions returned in body bags, he explained, their governments could soon have a parliamentary inquiry on their hands.

UNIFIL peacekeepers wounded in Lebanon explosion

That, he added, was not a problem countries like Bangladesh had to deal with. At the same time,  he conceded that UN peacekeeping missions were lucrative for both individual soldiers and governments to fill their coffers.

Almost 'never enough' peacekeeping troops

The result: "Very, very few highly trained, Westernized troops for the United Nations," said Gilmour, a statement also supported by official UN figures. Today, the top five contributors are Nepal, India, Rwanda, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

"There are almost never enough" troops, Gilmour said. "So that means it's not as if the UN then can say, OK, we'll take this group because we think this country respects human rights. And I'm sorry guys, we're not going to take you."

The UN "don’t have that option."

Given situations, Gilmour concluded, "where literally thousands of people could be killed in the absence of UN peacekeepers, which — when you have to balance things — perhaps sending two or three bad apples is a less-bad option than thousands of people getting killed."

Sri Lanka: 'impunity writ large'

It's an admission that Frances Harrison finds "shocking." She is a former foreign correspondent turned activist who documents human rights abuses in Sri Lanka.

Civilians fleeing during the fighting.
The Sri Lankan army bombarded civilians and hospitals during the final months of the Civil war. Image: Amarathaas

Her laptop contains a trove of color-coded folders with photos and testimonies that document the atrocities committed in the decades-long brutal civil war between the Sri Lankan army and the Tamil Tigers, which drew to a particularly vicious end in 2009. Both sides perpetrated horrific human rights abuses, which the UN says likely amount to war crimes. 

Among Harrison's many documents, is a slightly grainy photo showing a group of Sri Lankan officers shielded from the rain by large, colorful umbrellas, looking down at dozens of corpses lined on a tarpaulin. One officer is pointing at the bodies.

His name is Shavendra Silva.

He is the man who commanded the 58th division, which carried out "gross violations of human rights, namely extrajudicial killings," according to the US Department of State, which imposed sanctions on Shavendra Silva in February 2020 for war crimes committed in the civil war.

In 2019, Sri Lanka promoted him to a top position — that of Army Chief. Following international outcry, including by the UN's own human rights body, the Department of Peacekeeping Operations announced that it would suspend future Sri Lankan army deployments, except "where suspension would expose UN operations to serious operational risk."

However, figures published by the UN show that in 2019, Sri Lanka sent 687 peacekeepers on UN missions. One year after Silva's appointment, it was still deploying more than 665 troops. 

The suspension, the spokesman for UN Peacekeeping explained in his written response, "would have exposed UN peacekeeping operations to serious operational risk. Therefore, exceptions were made for these contingents, while existing deployments were kept under review.”

This, of course, is in contrast to his earlier assertion that no single troop contributor could undermine a peacekeeping operation by withdrawing its forces.

As documented in several photos, Shavendra Silva, his uniform hung with medals, was often the one to see the blue berets off.

Sri Lankas Army Chief General Shavendra Silva seeing peacekeeper off
In 2020, the US designated Silva due to his involvement in human rights violations. Image: AFP

"Can you imagine what that's like for victims of the civil war, of the violations, then to see that," Harrison asked, the anger clear in her voice. "This is impunity writ large, and nobody has done anything to stop that."

Harrison has warned the UN and others for years about individual Sri Lankan soldiers who were likely involved in war crimes and yet deployed as peacekeepers.

In  2019, she alerted the UN about an officer who was to be deployed as Contingent Company Commander in Mali.
The UN seemingly didn't take her warnings seriously. It didn't take us long to find that the man was in fact deployed as Contingent Company Commander in Mali in 2019 — just days after Harrison's warnings. A photo shows him at the airport, the UN's blue beret on his head, hands clasped with none less than Army Chief Shavendra Silva.

And our research shows he was still stationed in Mali as recently as 2021. 

Her warnings, Harrison says, were simply "brushed away."

The spokesperson for UN Peacekeeping wrote to DW, Netra News, and Süddeutsche Zeitung that it had taken "these allegations seriously." However, he continued, "found no information available at the time that gave reasonable grounds to believe that his individual may have had responsibility for violations of human rights."

'No one cares who Bangladesh is deploying'

Our investigation points to one thing: when it comes to selecting troops, the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations is faced with a difficult dilemma. It must accept the troops it knows in some cases may have committed abuses or, faced with threats from troop contributing countries to withdraw their contingents, turn a blind eye to uphold the missions it says are saving the lives of the most vulnerable on the ground.

In the case of Bangladesh, our research shows that the UN seemingly opts for the latter.

A political source from a Western European country summarized that no one really cared who Bangladesh was deploying, given the general scarcity of troops for UN missions. And, he added, troops from militarized countries like Bangladesh were generally well-trained.

This could explain why, at Bangladesh's vast UN training grounds close to the capital, Dhaka, one general told DW during a recent visit that was carefully orchestrated, all questions pre-approved, that Bangladesh was, in fact, planning to extend its contribution to the UN peacekeeping.

It showed, he said, as a press officer stood by, "how they value us."

He was, of course, referring to the UN.

We confronted the individual officers mentioned in our story, as well as the government of Bangladesh and Sri Lanka with our findings. They didn't respond. 

The UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations stressed that "the vast majority of troops perform well, despite many of them operating with limited resources in challenging environments."


Editing: Mathias Bölinger, Lewis Sanders

Fact-checking: Julett Pineda

Legal support: Florian Wagenknecht