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  • Whistleblower says UN troops act with ‘complete impunity’
  • Report on sexual abuse of children went from ‘inbox to inbox’

One night last August as the Central African Republic was gripped by a conflict between Christian and Muslim groups, United Nations peacekeeping troops descended on an enclave in search of a suspect. One of the peacekeepers is accused of taking a 12-year-old girl behind a truck and raping her.

“When I cried, he slapped me hard and put his hand over my mouth,” the girl told Amnesty International.

It was hardly the only act of brutality by peacekeepers in the world’s poorest nations. There were 99 allegations of sexual abuse against UN staff last year, a 25 percent increase over 2014, affecting peacekeeping operations in countries including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Haiti, Ivory Coast, Libya, Mali and Sudan.

Vulnerable civilians in armed conflict have long been victims of abusive soldiers. But the 104,000 blue-helmeted troops currently deployed are sent by more than a dozen countries to protect people. Their repeated failures are looming over the UN as it chooses a new leader and tarnishing the legacy of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon who is ending his decade-long tenure amid accusations that he has not taken the issue seriously.

Under the Carpet

“For 10 years, the secretary general has been happy to sweep all of these allegations under the carpet, but this ‘out of sight, out of mind’ strategy has broken down before he reached the end of his term,” said Peter Gallo, a former UN investigator. “The organization’s manifest failure is to properly investigate any form of wrongdoing.”

Ban’s office denies the accusations — the secretary-general was “shocked to the core” by the abuse, his spokesman, Stéphane Dujarric, responded– and says he has moved aggressively. In April, the UN announced an investigation of allegations that peacekeepers from at least three countries had abused more than 100 girls in C.A.R., where the World Bank says nearly half the population of about 5 million needs humanitarian aid.

But damaging accounts keep surfacing, not only of abuse but of failure to investigate and act. Internal UN documents, leaked by AIDS-Free World, an advocacy group, include an episode in 2014 in which French troops were said to have forced four girls to perform obscene acts and tossed them a few dollars.

Last week, Anders Kompass, a senior UN official who had tried to expose earlier sexual abuse of children by French and African troops, resigned in frustration. He said he was horrified by “the complete impunity for those who have been found to have, in various degrees, abused their authority.” He told IRIN news service, “This makes it impossible for me to continue working there.”

A Damning Indictment

U.S. Republican Senator Bob Corker, who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee, called Kompass’s resignation “a damning indictment of the leadership at the United Nations that has failed to end the horrific sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeepers and protect those who report wrongdoing.”

Ban’s successor must make fixing the problem a high priority, says Richard Gowan, a fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. UN officials have been publicly interviewing more than a dozen potential successors to Ban, with a final selection expected in October. All have said they would work to end the mistreatment.

“There are too many stories of sexual abuse by peacekeepers and too little evidence of operations succeeding,” Gowan said. “The next secretary-general will need a plan both to clean up peacekeeping and give it a greater sense of strategic purpose.”

Peacekeeping dates from the origins of the UN but has grown enormously. In 1948 the UN sent 50 guards to monitor the Israeli-Arab truce. Today, about 104,000 troops with access to attack helicopters and drones are deployed across Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and Middle East. They are joined by an additional 16,500 civilian personnel. In the past quarter century, the budget has ballooned 16-fold to $8.3 billion.

Frequency and Impunity

Sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers was first documented in Bosnia and Kosovo in the early 1990s. As the frequency has increased, so has impunity for the perpetrators, partly because responsibility for punishment falls to home countries. The UN can send troops home and document the reasons why, but it can’t impose criminal charges or jail offenders.

“The UN is famous as a place where rapists get away with rape,” said Paula Donovan, co-founder and director of Aids-Free World.

The latest scandals go back to 2013 when boys at a refugee camp in C.A.R.’s capital, Bangui, say they were ordered to perform oral sex and raped by peacekeepers from France, Chad and Equatorial Guinea. A UN official produced a report which was sent to the human rights office in Geneva as well as to Unicef, the children’s agency. Neither took action.

Beatrice Edwards, international program director of the Government Accountability Project, an advocacy group, said UN staff are reluctant to report sexual abuse for fear of losing their jobs.

Leaked Report

Kompass, then field operations director at the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, ultimately got fed up and leaked the buried report to French diplomats in Geneva who sent investigators to Bangui.

The UN rewarded Kompass for his efforts by suspending him and starting a disciplinary investigation. Miranda Brown, who worked with Kompass, then passed the report to the U.S. mission. Brown’s contract was not renewed, which she says was retaliation for her actions.

“The real problem is that the UN’s leadership are only accountable to themselves, ” said Brown, who has testified at Congressional hearings.

An external panel appointed last year by Ban issued a harsh report in December, accusing some UN officials of obstructing the investigation and focusing on punishing Kompass. It said the child sexual abuse report went from “from desk to desk, inbox to inbox.”

Institutional Failure

“The end result was a gross institutional failure to respond to the allegations in a meaningful way,” it said. “In the absence of concrete action to address wrongdoing by the very persons sent to protect vulnerable populations, the credibility of the UN and peacekeeping operations are in jeopardy.”

The problem isn’t getting better on its own although a few steps have been taken. Ban appointed a special coordinator, Jane Holl Lute, a former deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. And the Security Council authorized the peacekeeping office to send home troops whose countries fail to hold them accountable.

But the grinding bureaucracy moves slowly.

“For the UN to be fixed, it requires political will from other countries beyond the U.S.,” said Brett Schaefer, a researcher at the Heritage Foundation who has long been critical of the international organization. “The key is persevering after the spotlight has gone.”

Kambiz Foroohar