New campaign launches to tackle peacekeeper sexual assault

A United Nations peacekeeper takes part in training in Ituri, Democratic Republic of Congo. A new campaign aimed at holding nonmilitary U.N. peacekeepers accountable for sexual assault was launched on Wednesday in New York. Photo by: Martine Perret / U.N. / CC BY-NC-ND

A new civil society-led campaign is targeting a pervasive culture that knows few legal limits — the near total immunity provided to U.N. peacekeepers who commit sexual exploitation and abuse against civilians they are charged with protecting.

CodeBlue launched Wednesday, May 13, in New York City in a bid to hold nonmilitary U.N. peacekeeper personnel legally accountable. This group accounted for the majority of U.N. mission sexual perpetrators in 2014, according to the campaign coalition.

The campaign, announced at the Ford Foundation headquarters in New York, also calls for an independent, member-state commission to evaluate how the U.N. system is handling the problem of sexual misconduct in post-conflict and conflict nations.

“The evidence is things have not improved, apparently they have gotten worse,” said Graça Machel, a Mozambican humanitarian and member of The Elders. She spoke at the CodeBlue news conference, where she referenced a report she led on children in armed conflict nearly 20 years ago. “Who among the leaders of countries is going to take the lead and say, ‘Not in our name? This has to stop.’”

CodeBlue, which has been under development for about a year, comes on the heels of two damning internal U.N. reports leaked this spring to the New York-based international nongovernmental organization AIDS Free World.

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A U.N. Secretariat report from November 2013, released this March, found that some people in the peacekeeping missions in Haiti, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic and South Sudan lacked training in the “particulars” of sexual exploitation and abuse. The peacekeeping missions had problems with “deep-rooted attitudes with respect to masculinities and the rights of women.”

Official numbers were also said to mask “significant amounts of underreporting,” and impunity was noted as “more normal than the exception.”

“The U.N. currently does not know the extent of the [sexual exploitation and abuse] problem, and U.N. personnel in all the missions we visited could point to numerous suspected or quite visible cases of SEA that are not being counted or investigated,” the report concluded.

In April, another confidential report disclosed the rape of internally displaced boys as young as 9 years old committed by French peacekeeping troops in the Central African Republic. A senior U.N. aid worker, Anders Kompass, lost his job following his disclosure of the internal report detailing the abuses to French authorities.

“I was horrified,” AIDS Free World co-director Paula Donovan, who saw the Central African Republic report, told Devex ahead of the CodeBlue launch. “It added fuel to the fire that we were planning to set about U.N. immunity and how it is presenting the greatest obstacle in its stated goal of achieving zero tolerance of SEA. In particular with peacekeeping operations, it is not possible to get to the stated goal of zero as long as U.N. immunity is in place.”

The 1946 U.N. Charter provides immunity for all U.N. staff in foreign territories, though the U.N. secretary-general can waive this right in some cases. The U.N. founders, Donovan and others have argued, did not intend for this privilege to protect against prosecution from crimes committed in a host state.

The United Nations maintains a zero-tolerance policy against sexual exploitation or abuse, and since 2005 has instituted mandatory preventative SEA training for all arriving peacekeepers.

The issue is not new for the United Nations, which currently has 16 peacekeeping missions. Peacekeeper scandals have emerged from a host of countries. Peacekeepers have faced charges and sometimes been removed for SEA, in particular in Haiti, Burundi, Bosnia and Kosovo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Ivory Coast, and Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

In February 2015, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon wrote in a report to the General Assembly that the number of new allegations of SEA stemming from U.N. agencies, funds and programs totaled 79 in 2014, down from 96 in 2013.

During the Wednesday morning news conference, Donovan questioned the U.N. data. She spoke alongside a former commander for the U.N. mission during the Rwandan genocide, Anwarul Chowdhury, the former ambassador of Bangladesh to the U.N., and Theo Sowa, the CEO of the African Women’s Development Fund.

“The reality is shocking,” she said. “The data is misleading, confusing, and demonstrates just how serious the problem is.”

She noted that in 2014, 69 percent of the U.N. SEA allegations — which can include individual or multiple victims — were against nonmilitary officials, including mission experts.

CodeBlue has pushed AIDS Free World, an advocacy organization committed to issues surrounding HIV and AIDS, into new territory, now positioned as a campaigner against sexual assault and corruption within the U.N. system.

The movement is also now hinging on individual member states to step forward and commit to establishing a commission that will investigate gaps within the United Nations that allows this problem to continue unabated. It will not be easy, Ambassador Chowdhury said. He noted the importance of CodeBlue’s civil society’s roots.

“Civil society does not have the kind of role that they deserve to play within the U.N. system,” he said. “Those days are long gone where member states can decide the fate of humanity. Civil society has to do it.”

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About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.