UN tackles sexual abuse,
▶ Guterres calls meeting to address exploitation and hopes pact to address problem will be signed by 193 states
He is calling it the Circle of Leadership – about 50 heads of state and government committed to ending sexual exploitation by United Nations peacekeepers on international missions.
At his first UN general assembly session as secretary general, Antonio Guterres has invited world leaders to an event tomorrow to discuss the sexual exploitation and abuse that have tarnished the UN’s peacekeeping operations and continue to blacken the UN’s name.
Mr Guterres last week announced the draft of a pact that he hopes the UN’s 193 member states will sign. It emphasises “the shared principles” of the UN and member states for peace operations, including commitments to prevent sexual exploitation.
The Circle of Leadership will make commitments to end impunity for those accused of sexual abuse and exploitation on international missions. The leaders joining the circle will be announced tomorrow.
Mr Guterres’s initiative came as the UN’s peacekeeping mission to the Central African Republic said it would look into claims that investigations into sexual abuse by UN forces were mishandled.
In March, Mr Guterres announced measures to tackle the increase in sexual abuse and exploitation by UN peacekeepers and staff, including a focus on victims and bans on alcohol and fraternisation for troops.
He said then that “no magic wand exists to end the problem”, but “I believe that we can dramatically improve how the United Nations addresses this scourge”.
An investigation by Associated Press uncovered about 2,000 allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation over 12 years.
One of the worse cases involved a group of Sri Lankan peacekeepers who ran a child sex ring in Haiti between 2004 and 2007. Despite a UN investigation, none of the peacekeepers was prosecuted.
US ambassador Nikki Haley referred to that investigation in a UN security council meeting in April, warning that the US could withdraw funding both for missions where such abuses were rife, and for countries that failed to hold perpetrators to account.
This week, a watchdog said it had obtained leaked case files showing “egregious mishandling” of sexual misconduct allegations by the UN against peacekeepers in the Central African Republic.
The 14 cases given by the Code Blue campaign were investigated last year after complaints concerning nine countries – Pakistan, Zambia, Republic of Congo, Burundi, Morocco, Egypt, Cameroon, Gabon and Niger.
But a “sham process” meant these complaints were never investigated in depth. In eight cases, the victims were not interviewed, corroborating witnesses were not sought for testimony, and investigators showed “overwhelming bias” against those who complained.
A woman who said she had been sexually assaulted by a Moroccan UN soldier at Obo, eastern Central African Republic, was questioned for 13 days by nine men – UN staff and local authorities – before her complaint was dismissed as false and the investigators concluded that she was after compensation.
“In at least four cases, fact-finders gave weight to unsubstantiated assertions suggesting that the accused peacekeepers were the true victims in the incidents,” Code Blue’s report said.
Ten cases did not appear on the UN website where information about sexual misconduct is supposed to be released.
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the organisation was “looking into the allegations made by Code Blue”.
Jane Holl Lute, the special coordinator on improving the UN response to sexual exploitation and abuse, said the secretary general believed the UN could not fulfil its mandate of preventing conflict and battling poverty with ineffective responses to claims of sexual abuse.
Mr Guterres said: “I’m going to pursue this agenda because it is a black mark not only on our history but on ourselves, and it’s a real impediment to the effectiveness of this organisation’s operations.”
He intends to put victims “at the centre”, to end impunity for alleged perpetrators, to engage with society, and to increase education and transparency.
But Ms Lute conceded that: “This is an ever-present danger for women everywhere. There is no country, there is no military that is immune from these behaviours.
“This is not a problem exclusive to uniformed personnel, nor is it exclusive to peacekeeping. And civilians, frankly, are more guilty of this than are uniformed military personnel, by percentage.”
But she also acknowledged that reported cases of abuse by UN peacekeepers might increase this year, because more people understand “this is an environment that they can trust to report”.
Tomorrow, Mr Guterres will introduce the first UN rights advocate for victims – Australian lawyer and human rights advocate, Jane Connors.
Ms Lute said that the scandals in peacekeeping had tarnished the UN’s credibility forever.
“From my point of view, you’ll never hear a story about UN and UN peacekeeping without someone referring to this black mark on our record,” she said.
“Even though we may really turn the tide, which is what we’re trying to do, we will never be able to erase the history books.”
Guterres says conduct of forces was a stain on the UN’s reputation and its efforts to live up to its charter and values