NEW YORK, N.Y. — Speaking just steps from the U.N. headquarters, international advocacy organization AIDS-Free World launched “Code Blue,” a campaign to end immunity for sexual exploitation and abuse by U.N. peacekeepers.
Joining AIDS-Free World in the May 13 event were Ms. Graça Machel, Lt. Gen. Roméo Dallaire, Ms. Theo Sowa, and Ambassador Anwarul Chowdhury.
Recent revelations of child sexual abuse by French and other troops in the Central African Republic, the U.N.’s documentation of those crimes, and its failure over the next year to report the perpetrators or to protect the victims, are the latest in a shameful litany of tolerance for sexual abuse and subsequent cover-ups, declared the participants at the launch of Code Blue.
For more than two decades, the media and non-governmental organizations have uncovered depraved acts by U.N. peacekeepers, including human trafficking in Bosnia, sex-for-food scandals in West Africa, and the rapes of women and children in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. With each new exposé, the UN reasserts its policy of “zero tolerance for sexual exploitation and abuse.”
In practice, the U.N.’s zero-tolerance policy amounts to zero justice for victims, according to AIDS-Free World, which is determined to change that.
As a first crucial step, it will seek the removal of any possibility of immunity1 for the U.N.’s own personnel: the U.N.’s non-military staff, police and experts on mission when they are accused of sexual exploitation or abuse, sending a powerful message to countries that supply military peacekeepers.
The U.N.’s zero-tolerance policy amounts to zero justice for victims.
Code Blue will also call for the creation of an independent, external Commission of Inquiry to examine every facet of sexual exploitation and abuse in peacekeeping operations, and to investigate the way the U.N. system is handling the problem from its missions on the ground, right up through the chain of command to the Secretary-General.
“U.N. immunity is a protective cloak that allows peacekeepers to commit atrocities knowing how unlikely it is that they will ever be stopped, investigated or punished for their crimes,” said Paula Donovan, co-director of AIDS-Free World. “The presumption that U.N. peacekeeping personnel may be immune from legal process triggers a chain reaction that most often ends in gross miscarriages of justice.
“Instead of prompting immediate action, reports of abuse are caught up in a tangle of red tape while the Secretary-General decides whether to waive immunity. Meanwhile, suspects and their accomplices have time to destroy evidence, silence witnesses, and threaten or pay off victims or their families, making justice virtually unattainable.”
Shocking scale of abuse
The scale of sex abuse among U.N. peacekeepers, both military and non-military, is shocking, and the United Nations is well aware that it does not know the true extent of its own problem, according to Donovan.
In a suppressed 2013 report commissioned by Ban Ki-moon, an Expert Team found that “the official numbers mask what appears to be significant amounts of underreporting,” and that “U.N. personnel in all the missions we visited could point to numerous suspected or quite visible cases of [sexual exploitation and abuse] that are not being counted or investigated.”
Among recorded incidents are an appalling number of U.N. peacekeeper sexual-exploitation and abuse allegations marked “unsubstantiated,” Donovoan emphasized. She said cases are closed by the United Nations because any evidence that might have led to a conviction has disappeared.
Sexual abusers among the U.N.’s staff, experts and police remain within the system, undetected, unpunished, and eligible for posting to the next peacekeeping mission, according to AIDS-Free World.
“When I released [the landmark U.N. study] “The Impact of Armed Conflict on Children” in 1996, we highlighted the rise of child sex abuse associated with U.N. peacekeeping operations,” said Graça Machel. “At the time, we found that the investigation and punishment of peacekeepers for sexual exploitation and abuse was the exception rather than the rule.
“Nearly two decades later, virtually nothing has changed. Nearly two decades later, vulnerable women and children remain at unacceptable risk. Today a new chapter begins."