By Douglas Gillison
Activists in New York called Wednesday for the lifting of immunity for United Nations peacekeeping staff accused of sex crimes, saying the current system was permitting human rights abuses in conflict zones around the world.
The campaign by the organization AIDS-Free World, dubbed “Code Blue,” coincides with the suspension of a UN staff member last month, who had given French authorities an internal report on the alleged rape of children by French troops in the Central African Republic.
French authorities told The Guardian that their own investigation had been stymied by UN assertions of immunity last year.
Over the last decade, the United Nations has touted its efforts to reduce the number of cases of sexual abuse by civilians and troops employed in peacekeeping operations. Nearly 107,000 uniformed personnel, in addition to civilian staff, are now engaged in 16 peacekeeping operations in conflict zones and poor countries around the world.
“There’s something truly dreadful going on in the internal operations of the United Nations that makes zero tolerance impossible to achieve,” Stephen Lewis, co-director of AIDS-Free World, said at a press conference live streamed on the internet.
The organization is calling for the abolition of immunity for UN peacekeeping personnel in cases of alleged sexual exploitation and abuse, and for an independent commission of inquiry to investigate the way the UN system handles sex crime allegations.
Lewis was joined by a panel of notables who endorsed the new campaign, including the retired Canadian Lieutenant General Roméo Dallaire, who was a UN force commander during the 1994 Rwanda genocide, and Anwarul K. Chowdhury, the former ambassador to the UN from Bangladesh, the single-largest contributor of troops to UN peacekeeping missions.
“The people of Bangladesh would not want to be associated with an endeavor which is accused of sexual exploitation and abuse,” said Chowdhury.
Under a 1946 convention, UN employees enjoy diplomatic immunity for actions performed as part of their work. International troops contributed to peacekeeping missions are not under direct UN authority and remain broadly under the control of their home countries.
The vast majority, nearly 70 percent, of alleged sexual misconduct in 2014 concerned UN agency staff and non-military personnel, according to UN figures published in March.
UN officials say immunity is always waived in cases of sexual exploitation and abuse.
In remarks sent to 100Reporters, a public affairs office for UN peacekeeping operations and field support said immunity should not be confused with impunity.
“Anyone who commits a criminal act, including UN peacekeeping and other personnel, must be held criminally accountable. Immunity is not the real problem,” the statement said.
“Where we need to push is in making sure member states prosecute the crimes and abuses we report to them — whether by our personnel or theirs.”
However Paula Donovan, a co-founder of AIDS-Free World, said at Wednesday’s event that the process of determining whether to revoke immunity itself was harmful to investigations.
“That gap of time allows evidence to degrade, it allows the accused to threaten witnesses, it allows victims to suddenly disappear,” she said.
If immunity did not apply anyhow, it should be abolished for such cases altogether, she said.
Alison Giffen, an expert on peacekeeping at the Stimson Center in Washington, said she endorsed calls for greater accountability but worried about exposing UN officials to hostile local governments.
“I would be concerned with the possibility that UN personnel could be held accountable by the justice systems in the countries where they’re serving, only because there are some countries that are antagonistic towards the UN and their personnel,” said Giffen.
The United Nations had repeatedly complained in recent years of the arbitrary arrest of staff members in Sudan.
“UN personnel in general do not have diplomatic immunity, we only have immunity for our official acts not our private acts,” said Nick Birnback, a spokesman for UN peacekeeping. “We are not immune from prosecution for crimes including rape.
“We are not above the law; the only question is which law applies. This boils down to which jurisdiction — the host state or the state of nationality of the alleged offender — affords the individual due process and ensures the greatest likelihood that justice will be done.”
Donovan, of AIDS-Free World, told reporters on Wednesday that the question of what happens after immunity is eliminated was something that should be addressed as part of a reform effort.
“We’ll figure that out later,” she said. “These horrendous human rights violations are happening, they’re legal. We have to make them illegal.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly said that a UN staff member had been dismissed for passing information to French authorities on the alleged rape of children by French troops in the Central African Republic. Anders Kompass, an employee of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, was suspended in April. A UN tribunal found this month that his suspension was unlawful.
Top photo: Officers from the Indonesian contingent of the African Union-United Nations Operation in Darfur (UNAMID) stand in formation during a ceremony for the 2010 International Day of United Nations Peacekeepers, in El Fasher, Sudan. UN Photo/Albert Gonzalez Farran.