“When I cried, he slapped me hard and put his hand over my mouth,” said a 12-year-old girl who claimed to have been raped by a uniformed U.N. peacekeeper in the Central African Republic.
According to a report Amnesty International released on Tuesday, the girl had been hiding in the bathroom during a house search earlier this month when a man wearing the sky blue helmet and vest of the peacekeeping forces took her outside and raped her. The advocacy organization called for an investigation into the sexual violence charge as well as the murders of a father and son by the peacekeepers.
In what has been called an “unprecedented” move within the U.N., Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon requested that the top U.N. official in the Central African Republic resign in response to Amnesty’s allegations.
“I cannot put into words how anguished and angered and ashamed I am by recurrent reports over the years of sexual exploitation and abuse by U.N. forces,” Ban said on Thursday.
He added that he plans to speak to all of the agency’s mission chiefs and force commanders to urge them to “report allegations immediately, investigate thoroughly, and act decisively” when it comes to accusations of sexual violence by U.N. personnel.
Similarly alarming allegations of sexual violence have undermined the organization charged with maintaining order in conflict zones for the past several months.
The most recent allegation of rape in the Central African Republic comes after news that French peacekeepers raped boys as young as nine, according to a U.N. internal report leaked to the Guardian newspaper in April. In June, reports emerged that peacekeepers coerced at least 225 Haitian women into having sex with them in exchange for basic necessities such as food and medication.
Sexual violence and exploitations have not been isolated to any one region of the world. Reports of abuse at the hands of peacekeepers have emerged from Bosnia, Haiti, and the East Timor, among other countries. In some instances, the peacekeepers abandoned children they fathered who were ostracized for being mixed race.
While such reports have gained media attention in recent months, the charges first began to emerge 20 years ago. In 2005, the U.N. adopted a strategy to prevent sexual violence from taking place, but many advocates still take serious issue with how U.N. personnel have continued to commit acts of sexual violence without any real consequences.
That impunity has been based, in large part, on U.N. provisions that grant immunity to staff members from involvement in legal processes while they are abroad, not unlike the exceptions made for diplomats. Because of these provisions, few peacekeepers are prosecuted in the countries where they commit rape or sexual abuse.
While they might be prosecuted in their home countries, Rosa Freedman, a law professor at the University of Birmingham notes that, “Such prosecutions are exceptionally rare, with most countries simply allowing soldiers to return home without any repercussions. U.N. staff, part of the international civil service, have immunity from the jurisdiction of courts in any country in the world, including their own nations.”
That immunity can only be waived by the Secretary-General of the U.N. on a case by case basis, which has occurred only on rare occasions. Still, waiting for such an ok from the head of one of the world’s largest international organizations can seriously impede on the judicial process, according to Paula Donovan of the advocacy organization Aids Free World.
“The delay can mean that witnesses have been paid off, or that the rape victim has been threatened,” she said. “Given that the crime scene can’t be cordoned off and evidence can’t be preserved until immunity is waived, by the time investigators arrive, there’s not a case.”
Donovan’s organization demanded an independent investigation into the U.N.’s handling of sexual violence after it received a leaked report on the sexual abuse of children by French peacekeeping troops in the Central African Republic. It has since launched a campaign called Code Blue to endthe the immunity U.N. staff enjoys when it comes to allegations of sexual violence.
One reason why she says the alleged abuse has persisted is because of the image the U.N. seeks to maintain in the world.
“The U.N.’s organizational culture is based on fear,” Donovan said. “If something isn’t going well in the world, you can blame the member states. If something in the organization is not going well, everyone suppresses bad news and doesn’t pass it along.”
While a head of the Peacekeeping Operations wing of the U.N. promised to be “clear and up front” about the issue of sexual violence back in 2006, independent investigations and impartial prosecutions have been rare.
In the few instances when their immunity was waived, peacekeepers are held accountable for their actions, their sentences have tended to fall short of those applied to similar crimes committed domestically.
Three peacekeepers from Pakistan found guilty of sexually assaulting a 14-year-old boy in Haiti were sentenced to just a year in prison by a military court.
Although the U.N. has called for a policy of “zero tolerance” for sexual violence and exploitation, its officials have relented that the agency is simply too large to have “zero incidents” of sexual violence.
“What we can do is get across a message of zero tolerance, which for us means zero complacency when credible allegations are raised and zero impunity when we find that there has been malfeasance that’s occurred,” Nick Birnback, a U.N. spokesperson said in 2008. His statement came after reports emerged that children as young as six were sexually abused by peacekeepers in Cote d’Ivoire, Sudan, and Haiti.
According to the official U.N. count, instances of sexual violence by its staff have followed a downward trend in the last several years. While some of the shift might be attributed to a code of conduct overall and a revamped strategy on prevention, enforcement, and remedial action, advocates maintain that the scale of the problem is unclear. That’s because so many of the reports of sexual violence have come from independent organizations and leaked documents instead of from the U.N. directly.
For the U.N. to fully enact its strategy on sexual violence, advocates say, the organization needs acknowledge the problem more openly.