The United Nations, Peacekeeping and Sex Abuse

So yesterday, sexual exploitation and abuse among United Nations peacekeepers and other troops in the Central African Republic (CAR) occasioned another UN resignation. Babacar Gaye, the Secretary General's Special Representative to the CAR, resigned after Ban Ki-Moon asked him to step down. Last month, Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Flavia Pansieri tendered her resignation also, citing medical reasons, a pretextual explanation for her pending departure that convinced absolutely no one.

In demanding Gaye's resignation, the Secretary General apparently thought it's time to look serious about peacekeepers and sexual assault. He urged victims of crimes by UN forces to come forward and report abuses, as the Organization commits itself to doing "all we can to respond to these outrageous crimes." Ban continued:

I will reiterate that leaders must report allegations immediately, investigate thoroughly and act decisively. Failure to do so will have clear consequences.

The Secretary General did not mention Anders Kompass, however, the senior official at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) who did exactly what Ban is now demanding of his staff. Kompass thought - wrongly, it seems - his job entailed reporting sex crimes against children to law enforcement, and consequently he is under investigation by the UN - for 'leaking' the names of victims to the French police, who have jurisdiction over the alleged perpetrators.

Kompass reported allegations, ensured an investigation (until it was blocked by OHCHR attorneys -- para. 16) and acted decisively. For his trouble, he was asked to resign, and when he refused he was suspended and investigated. No one is quite sure what for. Apparently, he is suspected of reporting assaults and providing evidence to the police...

Everyone watching this theater knows that the Kompass investigation is reprisal for embarrassing the UN, and the Pansieri/Gaye resignations have nothing to do with accountability. Kompass tried to address an appalling situation in the CAR, and although Pansieiri and Gaye might have done better than they did in confronting the chaos, they were hardly central to the action - or lack of it.

What's going on, then?

Madeleine Rees, who earned her stripes speaking out against human rights abuses and sex trafficking in Bosnia by peacekeepers and now serves as Secretary General of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, explains it here.

Not surprisingly, Rees finds that the thrashing around about sexual exploitation at the UN is political. For some at the Organization now, human rights are a bargaining chip in larger policy negotiations and budget bickering, while for others, like Kompass, human rights are less fungible. The Kompass school of thought believes that, when confronting immediate and heinous abuse, a UN official simply puts down his clipboard and does something to stop it. The other school, currently in the ascendance, believes the UN official should instead weigh the various options in such a situation - for additional funding, support from member states, blowback from negligent governments, etc.

Nonetheless, when this sort of calculation comes to light, it's awkward, and from the CAR the bad news just keeps on coming. Last week a case of breathtaking depravity was revealed, together with the fact that the attackers responsible, although identified, were never punished. Nor was the contractor that hired them.

Most recently reports surfaced that a UN peacekeeper in the CAR raped a 12-year-old girl on August 2nd.

The situation is a sorry mess, but there is one thing that's certain; the OHCHR needs clear procedures for dealing with the abuse of children in conflict zones. The UN appears to be making up the rules as it goes along, while simultaneously trying to appear concerned and shield those really responsible. In the process, those who acted to address the situation are pilloried and those who had little to do with what happened take the fall.

Developing guidelines about sexual abuse isn't difficult. In the realm of decency, standards of basic human conduct prohibit the sodomizing of children, for example. Reporting abuse like this is mandatory in many UN member states and must be at the United Nations, too.

More generally, playing politics with human rights abuse is despicable. It is far from clear, however, that those running the UN (and especially those in charge of the OHCHR) agree about that. But if the Office is to fulfill its mandate, the High Commissioner, with the support of the Secretary General, should clarify his commitment to human rights. Terminating the investigation of Anders Kompass would be a good start in the right direction.