By Douglas Gillison
The United Nations announced what looked like steady decline in accusations of sex crimes among its staff and international peacekeepers last month, crediting a “zero tolerance” policy towards rape, sexual abuse and sex trafficking in war-torn and disaster-stricken countries.
However an internal report leaked to activists casts doubt on the claims of progress. The report, by an independent team of experts charged with reviewing the UN response to sex crimes, found systemic dysfunction in how the world body measures the breadth of victims’ complaints and responds to them.
For decades, the UN system, and its peacekeeping missions in particular, have been roiled by revelations of sexual crime and exploitation among the most destitute populations they are meant to protect.
The annual report released by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said there had been 79 new allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation in 2014, down from 96 in the year before.
The number of new allegations of sexual misconduct in peacekeeping missions stood at 51, which the report said was the lowest since the UN began to address the problem directly in 2003.
About a year earlier, however, a team of UN-appointed independent experts found that the UN was not even aware of the extent of the breach of its own rules due to “significant underreporting.” The experts reviewed four peacekeeping missions which alone accounted for roughly 85 percent of sexual exploitation and abuse allegations.
The panel found that civilian and military personnel were poorly trained to recognize and respond to sexual crimes and misconduct. And there were an array of barriers to reporting sex crimes — unskilled investigators, long delays, a lack of information sharing among agencies, unchallenged notions of male behavior and “extreme caution” about the rights of the accused, but not about those of the victims.
“Under these circumstances, the team heard numerous expressions of frustration that those who break the rules are not punished and that impunity is more norm than exception,” the internal report found.
The internal report, prepared by three expert consultants, examined peacekeeping operations in South Sudan, Liberia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haiti over a three-month period in 2013.
Paula Donovan, co-founder of AIDS-Free World, the organization which published the leaked report, said that tracking the numbers of “allegations,” as the secretary-general’s report did, was effectively meaningless.
A single so-called allegation, she said, may involve multiple victims, multiple perpetrators and acts occurring over extended periods of time.
“It’s just a ridiculous non-indicator that they’ve been getting away with [using] for years,” she said. “It’s handing the rape denialists a big bonus.”
Donovan cited the example of a mentally disabled 14-year-old boy sexually abused by peacekeepers in Haiti whose case was discovered in 2012.
UN officials told 100Reporters last year that investigators believed successive peacekeeping contingents had passed the boy among them over a period of years with the knowledge that he would be unlikely or unable to complain.
“You can imagine how many perpetrators over the course of five years,” said Donovan. “That counts as one allegation.”
Ismini Palla, a spokeswoman for the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations, said that since 2012, the annexes attached to the annual reports have indicated how many victims and perpetrators were involved.
Supplemental records available online provide similar information stretching back to 2010, she added.
The secretary-general’s report had taken note of the expert consultants’ findings and now proposed the creation of immediate response teams and investigation timelines, she added.
“The United Nations counts allegations as they are initially reported and recorded by the Office of Internal Oversight Services,” Palla wrote in an email, referring to an internal UN oversight body.
“At the time of the allegation, information concerning the numbers of individuals involved, either as victims or alleged perpetrators, is often incomplete or unavailable and may not be made clear until an investigation has been completed.”
The case of the boy raped in Haiti does appear to be reflected in public documents. The annex for the annual report for 2012 notes that two international police officers in Haiti were jailed for sexual abuse on a minor.
The pair were from Pakistan and sentenced each to a year in prison after a military trial, according to Reuters.
UN personnel enjoy sovereign immunity, meaning they are beyond the reach of local courts.
For Donovan, of AIDS-Free World, what little indications the UN was providing on the scope of the problem were buried in a way that meant policy makers and the public likely to miss them.
“If you have to get to the annex to get the scope of the problem — and when you do you see that the scope of the problem is larger than what the Secretary General is reporting to the General Assembly — is he doing his job?” she asked.