Oversight of the UN is a Road to Nowhere:

UN Deflection and Distraction from Peacekeepers’ Sexual Exploitation and Abuse

By Gabrielle Simeck

On April 30th, the House Foreign Affairs’ Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations held an open hearing on “UN Peacekeeping Operations in Africa,” where four witnesses testified on ongoing accountability, transparency, and oversight issues pertaining to peacekeeping missions on the continent. This hearing confronts the UN’s bold, shameful protection of employees who abuse their authority and vicious track-record for retaliation against the whistleblowers who report them.

In his opening remarks, ranking member Representative Christopher Smith (R-NJ), who has attended multiple hearings on sexual abuse in the UN peacekeeping system, provided numerous examples of sexual abuse and exploitation within the UN, and ended his opening remarks with the following statement: “zero tolerance ought to be zero tolerance.” Unfortunately, the outcome of the hearing was unlikely to produce such a result.

Instead, divergent perspectives emerged from the witnesses on the current state of UN peacekeeping. The first image of the UN, as depicted by Victoria K. Holt, Chandrima G. R. Das, and Dr. Paul D. Williams, was of a UN Peacekeeping system capable of reform and offering positive contributions to regional stability and democracy. The second image, informed by Peter Gallo, an advocate for victims of sexual exploitation and abuse, was a highly critical portrait of the UN’s willful ignorance of wrongdoing, their repeated retaliation against employees who attempt to report these problems, and their refusal to implement substantive reforms to prevent them from continuing.

Holt’s testimony opened the door for confusion around the actual state of sex abuse-related reforms by playing into the Democrats’ fears of reducing funding of the UN. In her opening statement, Holt emphasized the many positive contributions of peacekeeping missions in Africa, including the support of rule of law, democracy, and human rights. While Holt conceded that reform was necessary, she also asked the subcommittee members for increased financial support from Congress and underscored the need for U.S. involvement, telling the subcommittee that the “UN needs our leadership.” Though Das said that the peacekeeping system’s inability to be reformed is a common “misconception,” she named areas like “transparency” and “accountability,” where she believed progress could be made in her testimony. She concluded by saying “Peacekeepers, go where no one else will.” Supporting peacekeepers, “is the right thing to do.” The issue before the subcommittee, however, was not whether supporting peacekeepers is the right thing to do; rather, the issue concerned the state of the UN’s reporting systems and accountability for sexual exploitation and abuse.

The straw man tactic was effective; the Democratic Members of the subcommittee seemed more concerned with ensuring full financial support for peacekeeping missions than preventing sexual exploitation and abuse and improving whistleblower protections.

Gallo’s testimony focused on the systemic challenges to efficacious identification, investigation, and prosecution of perpetrators of sexual exploitation and abuse in the peacekeeping system. Gallo began by saying that criticism of the UN is often misleadingly conflated with an “attempt to destroy the Organization.” However, Gallo said, “nothing could be further from the truth.” To underscore his point — that the lack of oversight and accountability within the UN system could mean that its mission is overshadowed by its abuses — Gallo quoted Shakespeare, “The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones.” He explained, “Nobody wants the UN to be more remembered for the sexual abuse of children in Africa rather than the reason the Organization was there in the first place.”

According to Gallo, the UN is “willfully blind to the harm [that] peacekeeping brings with it.” Gallo testified that whistleblowers, including three Government Accountability Project clients, Anders Kompass, Miranda Brown, and Emma Reilly, faced retaliation after blowing the whistle on UN abuses. “Whistleblower protection does not work,” Gallo said, “because the UN does not want it to work.”

Near the end of the session, Das cited purported examples of recent reforms and oversight, including an “online database” established in 2015 of “every allegation [that has] ever [been] reported” (this supposedly transparent system is actually far from it, as further described below). She also mentioned the appointment of a victims rights advocate, Jane Connors, and the establishment of other advocates within peacekeeping missions. However, notably missing in her testimony were any efforts to stop retaliation against whistleblowers or to hold retaliators accountable.

Following the closure of the meeting, Gallo immediately interjected a correction to Das’ testimony. “The conduct and discipline website, which Ms. Das refers to, does not list all of the allegations. It lists the investigations. The United Nations does not publish the numbers of complaints received.” He continued,

“There is a requirement to report to the [General Assembly] the number of sexual exploitation and abuse cases. The UN defines [a] case as one which is being investigated. And what happens is that the vast majority of these complaints are screened out at what they call the assessments phase. So we do not know the number, the total number, of complaints that are received. And with regard to victims rights advocates, the problem there is that the United Nations’ definition of a victim is someone who has had a case — who’s sexual exploitation and abuse — has been determined by a UN investigation. And if you look at the statistics, they are tiny.”

However, the subcommittee members seemed disinterested in duly considering this significant distinction; after Gallo’s interjection, Chairman Bass quickly closed the hearing again.    

This interaction is indicative: until the UN deals with its systemic issues with whistleblower retaliation and accountability, institutional corruption and abuses of power will persist.