The United Nations, which fields nearly 200,000 people from well over 100 countries rotating through its peacekeeping missions every year, is determined to reinforce its policy of zero tolerance and remains constantly vigilant to fight the scourge, a senior official said today.
“We recognize that this is a structural problem and that we need to deal with it structurally and systemically and that the behaviour of a relative few has tarnished the entire reputation of peacekeeping and we will not allow that to continue to occur,” Assistant Secretary-General Jane Holl Lute told a news briefing at UN Headquarters in New York following media reports of abuses in southern Sudan.
“The reputation of UN peacekeeping is one of our most powerful assets, which is why we have responded over the past couple of years so strongly,” she said, stressing the UN’s three-point strategy of prevention, enforcement and remediation, with repetitive training and the establishment of complaint mechanisms.
The UN has also set up conduct units in all of its major peacekeeping operations, including Sudan, specifically tasked with addressing the problem.
The problem of sexual exploitation surfaced in 2004 when a UN report found that a “shockingly large number” of peacekeepers had engaged in such practices in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), with payments for sex sometimes ranging from two eggs to $5 per encounter. The victims included many abandoned orphans who were often illiterate.
Between January 2004 and November 2006, 319 peacekeeping personnel in all missions had been investigated, resulting in the summary dismissal of 18 civilians and the repatriation on disciplinary grounds of 17 police and 144 military personnel.
Ms. Holl Lute noted that the most recent cases in Sudan were based on a 2005-2006 report by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and said the “the expectation is that these are not new allegations” but concern 13 ongoing incidents. Four Bangladeshis involved have already been sent home to be dealt with by their own authorities.
“Every time I’m made aware of an allegation of sexual exploitation and abuse I’m outraged,” Ms. Holl Lute said. “I’m outraged at every level, as a peacekeeper, as a professional, as a colleague of the tens of thousands of men and women who serve honourably in peacekeeping. I share their anger that some of our number may be engaging in this behaviour.
“I’m angry as a woman, I’m angry as a mother, I’m saddened that the world has not come as far as we would like to believe in our treatment of women and vulnerable populations and I’m determined to continue to do whatever it is we can to strengthen this comprehensive programme of prevention, enforcement and remediation,” she added.
She underscored the considerable challenge the UN faced in deploying tens of thousands of peacekeepers to societies that have been wracked by conflict and war sometimes for generations. “It keeps happening because that potential is going to exist in this kind of an environment.”
But, she stressed, “the record of peacekeeping is an honourable one, it’s a good one, it’s a strong one.”
And she highlighted the crucial importance of “the collective message we are sending now as a community of international servants, international peacekeepers, international humanitarian aid workers, of the troop contributing countries, of all of the global organizations, of our determination that this behaviour will not be tolerated.”