After several months of intrigue and seeming inaction, the UN Spokesperson finally announced on 13 August that the head of MINUSCA, the UN mission in the crisis-torn Central African Republic, was finally being relieved of his post. This drastic move was only taken after Amnesty International made horrifying revelations about the indiscriminate murder of a 16-year-old boy and the rape of a 12-year-old girl in separate incidents in CAR.
Yet these were only the latest accusations of violence against civilians perpetrated by peacekeepers in CAR this year. Several peacekeepers are currently under investigation by the French law enforcement authorities after a whistleblower went directly to them following apparent inaction by the mission and New York.
CAR is by no means an unusual case. Allegations of sexual assault by peacekeepers have also dogged the UN mission in South Sudan and in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The mishandling of the CAR sexual violence allegations, however, affirms that the UN labours under a major accountability gap. And it’s time to close it. An accountability gap occurs when an organisation or an agency cannot be taken to task by some of its stakeholders for failing to deliver on its stated mandate. In the case of the UN, the organisation has been so historically focused on its accountability to states and to its staff that its main constituency should be the vulnerable people in war and crisis zones it claims to protect, and it should logically be held accountable when it fails to protect them from itself. In practice, the UN only takes responsibility for its failures when it chooses to, primarily accounting to states, and this inability to be taken to task by beneficiaries leaves them vulnerable to abuse by UN staff members.
The UN’s accountability gap isn’t news to anyone who works in the international humanitarian field. Aside from broad questions on what it means to confer an international organisation with authority over state-level actions, questions over peacekeeper malfeasance were first raised in 1993 when Canadian peacekeepers in Somalia participated in the grisly torture and murder of a Somali teenager – one of the few high profile instances in which peacekeeper crime was prosecuted, even though it only resulted in a maximum sentence of five years. Despite the depravity, the Canadian case is rarely cited in contemporary conversations on peacekeeping accountability, and then, there have been no major prosecutions for peacekeepers since, even though there has been no shortage of allegations.
In 2005, Secretary General Kofi Annan endorsed a scathing report for the UN General Assembly that implicated peacekeepers in sexual abuse cases around the world. The report specifically revealed that peacekeepers in MONUSCO, the UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, had been involved in trading favours for sex, including with minors, as well as smuggling and weapons trading. The report made several recommendations to address this misconduct: recommendations that the handling of the CAR scandal suggests have not been implemented.
Perhaps the most high profile case in recent years has been the ongoing litigation by a partnership of public interest law firms, Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) in Haiti and the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) against MINUSTAH, the UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti. This partnership has taken the UN to court for introducing cholera to Haiti, a disease that was previously absent on the island and has since caused the deaths of nearly 10,000 people. And cholera is only one of the many ways in which MINUSTAH has been implicated in crimes in Haiti. Allegations against civilians and sexual abuse by troops have dogged the mission, including a video that circulated in 2011 alleging sexual assault of Haitian boys by Uruguayan peacekeepers. Today, the detritus of the 2010 earthquake still litters parts of Haiti and MINUSTAH is one of the most unpopular institutions there.
The cholera case is a test case in how difficult the task of holding MINUSTAH accountable can be. The case has been stymied on several fronts by procedural and political limitations of suing the UN – the organisation cannot be sued unless it waives its immunity from prosecution. In some ways, this legal framework is necessary to the UN’s work.
Chains of liability for peacekeeper misconduct are a complicated knot of domestic, international and diplomatic law, depending on whether or not the offending peacekeeper can be said to be acting on their own initiative or “on behalf” of the UN. Given that the UN relies on troops from member countries, and it is difficult to guarantee that each battalion deployed under the UN flag would adhere to a central standard of conduct, it is often left up to individual countries to hold their troops accountable.
Even so, morally it should cause us great concern that the UN can claim to act in our collective name but cannot be held accountable in the same vein. The stakes are much higher than mere reputation. When peacekeepers use the UN name to shield themselves from prosecution, not only does it erode the standing of the whole organisation, it also creates risks for those who work in crisis zones.
It puts a target sign on other peacekeepers and other UN staff for retribution by frustrated communities. Most importantly, it denies victims of these heinous crimes their right to justice, something that the UN ostensibly stands and fights for. Wherever there’s an accountability gap, it is the most vulnerable who fall in and suffer.
It’s time to have a serious conversation about citizen-centred accountability measures for UN peacekeepers.
It’s frustrating enough that these kinds of crimes and abuses of power occur. It’s even more frustrating when the UN bungles its response to the detriment of victims. When stories of an apparent cover-up of sexual violence allegations against peacekeepers in CAR first emerged, the UN was indignant that the claims were “offensive”, choosing instead to blame Anders Kompass, the whistleblower, for “revealing sensitive information to the press”. Yet the UN did not dispute that it had been almost a year since it was made aware of the allegations and had seemingly done nothing. Despite protest and calls for visible justice, the organisation closed ranks with its senior staff, a move that only reinforced the perception that the UN holds the protection of its staff higher than the protection of its beneficiaries. Today, the organisation is enduring the very public and damaging humiliation of having to apologise for its bias.
This is the accountability gap – the audacity to ignore demands for justice from a key constitution by an organisation that claims to exist to protect justice.
The UN does important work, plenty of which would go undone if the organisation didn’t exist. But without systemic and visible efforts to address this accountability gap, it is exposing some of the most vulnerable people in the world to unspeakable horrors while consigning itself to irrelevance. Recall that the organisation is also grappling with mounting protests over its increasingly indefensible state hierarchies, and with a gargantuan bureaucracy that is increasingly difficult to fund and sustain.
Given that the UN is a creature of political imagination and collective will, nothing in its current structure should be absolute. If the organisation is to survive, it’s imperative to begin imagining ways of closing its gaping accountability gap.