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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 25 June 2018

UN chief to urge world leaders to prevent sexual abuse

At his first United Nations General Assembly session as secretary general, Antonio Guterres has invited world leaders to a special event on Monday to discuss preventing sexual exploitation and abuse — an issue that has tarnished the UN's peacekeeping operations 

UN secretary general Antonio Guterres, pictured here in Nairobi on March 8, 2017, has invited world leaders to a special event on September 18, 2017 on preventing sexual exploitation and abuse. Khalil Senosi / AP
UN secretary general Antonio Guterres, pictured here in Nairobi on March 8, 2017, has invited world leaders to a special event on September 18, 2017 on preventing sexual exploitation and abuse. Khalil Senosi / AP

He's calling it the "Circle of Leadership" — a group of about 50 heads of state and government committed to ending sexual exploitation by United Nations peacekeepers on international missions. And it is being launched by none other than the head of the body that sends those peacekeepers out on their far-flung missions.

At his first UN General Assembly session as secretary general, Antonio Guterres has invited world leaders to a special event on Monday to discuss preventing sexual exploitation and abuse — an issue that has tarnished the UN's peacekeeping operations and continues to blacken the body's name, despite promises to stamp out the scourge.

Mr Guterres this week announced the draft of a compact which he hopes the UN's 193 member states will sign. The document emphasises "the shared principles" of the UN and member states for conducting peace operations, including commitments to prevent sexual exploitation.

The Circle of Leadership will make commitments to end impunity for those accused of sexual abuse and/or exploitation in international UN deployments. The leaders joining the circle will be announced on Monday.

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The secretary general's initiative comes as the UN's peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic (Minusca) said it would probe allegations that investigations into sexual abuse by UN soldiers had been disastrously mishandled. Minusca spokesman Vladimir Monteiro in the Central African capital of Bangui said the force would "examine the allegations."

In March, Mr Guterres announced new measures to tackle the increase in sexual abuse and exploitation by UN peacekeepers and staff, including a new focus on victims and bans on alcohol and fraternisation for troops. He cautioned then that "no magic wand exists to end the problem" but said, "I believe that we can dramatically improve how the United Nations addresses this scourge".

An investigation by the Associated Press uncovered roughly 2,000 allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation during a 12-year period. One of the worse cases concerned a group of Sri Lankan peacekeepers running a child sex ring in Haiti between 2004 and 2007. Despite a UN investigation, no Sri Lankan peacekeeper was ever prosecuted.

US ambassador Nikki Haley referred to that investigation in a UN Security Council meeting in April, warning that the United States could withdraw funding both for missions where such abuses were rife and for countries that failed to hold perpetrators to account.

Earlier this week, a watchdog group said it had obtained leaked case files showing "egregious mishandling" of sexual misconduct allegations by the UN against peacekeepers in the Central African Republic, where the UN peacekeeping mission had the highest number of misconduct allegations in the world last year.

The 14 cases cited by the Code Blue campaign were investigated last year, following complaints concerning nine countries — Pakistan, Zambia, Republic of Congo, Burundi, Morocco, Egypt, Cameroon, Gabon and Niger. But a "sham process" meant these complaints were never probed in depth. In eight cases, the alleged victims were not interviewed, potentially corroborating witnesses were not sought out for interviews; and investigators showed "overwhelming bias" against those who complained.

A woman who said she had been sexually assaulted by a Moroccan UN soldier at Obo, eastern CAR, was questioned for 13 days by nine men, both UN staff and local authorities, before her complaint was dismissed as false, the investigators concluding she was after compensation.

Code Blue's report said: "In at least four cases, fact-finders gave weight to unsubstantiated assertions suggesting that the accused peacekeepers were the true victims in the incidents." Ten cases did not appear on the UN website where data is supposed to be released about sexual misconduct cases.

UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the organisation was "looking into the allegations made by Code Blue."

Jane Holl Lute, the special coordinator on improving the UN response to sexual exploitation and abuse, said the secretary general believes it will be impossible for the organisation to fulfil its mandate of preventing conflict and combating poverty if it is still tied up with ineffective responses to allegations of sexual abuses.

Mr Guterres said: "I'm going to pursue this agenda because it is a black mark not only on our history but on ourselves and it's a real impediment to the effectiveness of this organisation's operations."

In a four-part programme, Mr Guterres intends to put victims "at the centre", to end impunity for alleged perpetrators, to engage with civil society, and to increase education and transparency, Ms Lute said. But, she conceded: "This is an ever-present danger for women everywhere. There is no country, there is no military that is immune from these behaviours. This is not a problem exclusive to uniformed personnel, nor is it exclusive to peacekeeping … And civilians, frankly, are more guilty of this than are uniformed military personnel, by percentage".

But she also acknowledged that the number of reported cases of abuse UN peacekeepers might increase this year, because more people understand "this is an environment that they can trust to come forward and report".

On Monday, Mr Guterres will introduce the first UN rights advocate for victims — Australian lawyer and human rights advocate Jane Connors.

Ms Lute also conceded the scandals in peacekeeping missions had tarnished the UN's credibility forever.

"From my point of view, you'll never hear a story about UN and UN peacekeeping without someone referring to this black mark on our record," she said.

"Even though we may really turn the tide, which is what we're trying to do … we will never be able to erase the history books."