Focus on sexual misconduct by UN personnel

When reports of sexual abuses by UN personnel in West Africa emerged in 2002, Secretary-General Kofi Annan stated a clear policy of zero-tolerance of sexual misconduct by staff. However, allegations of sexual misconduct and gender-based violence by peacekeepers have since been reported in several operations, including Kosovo and, more recently, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Recent press reports have alleged that the UN’s internal watchdog, the Office of Internal and Oversight Services (OIOS), has opened an investigation into up to 68 allegations of sexual misconduct by peacekeeping of the UN Mission in the DRC (MONUC). The allegations range from trading food for sex, to cases of child rape and the organisation of a child prostitution ring out of an airport by UN troops in Bunia.

The OIOS "does not comment on ongoing investigations" said one official from the UN auditing body in New York, confirming that the OIOS investigation had yet to bring charges against any of those accused.

Patricia Tome, a spokeswoman for MONUC, said the investigation was due to be completed in August, noting that MONUC had itself initiated it after hearing of the accusations.

However, she said the weaknesses of the procedure to punish UN staff guilty of sexual misconduct. "The UN cannot take sanctions, it's up to the member states [to discipline their personnel]" Tome explained. "The UN does not prosecute criminal charges. If the military is involved [in cases of sexual misconduct], it's up to the contingent [to take disciplinary action]," she added. The UN could not proceed to punish criminal acts by its peacekeepers; only the individual’s national authorities were empowered to do so, she stressed.

In this respect, Nicola Johnston of the NGO International Alert said: "The problem is that there are very different lines of accountability for humanitarian workers, civilian police, and military personnel of the UN".

According to the disciplinary directives of the UN Department for Peacekeeping Operations, humanitarian workers are immune from legal proceedings unless the secretary-general waives this immunity. Civilian police found guilty of sexual misconduct could be subject to "removal from position of command, recommendation to repatriate, and written censure or reprimand". And in the case of military personnel found guilty of such offences, "the UN can recommend repatriation". The peacekeepers then face disciplinary action by their own national authorities.

But even when they are carried out, such procedures face several problems. MONUC soldiers are sent to the DRC on six-month assignments. Over such a brief period, it was difficult to collect evidence, especially as "some allegations are made after the departure of the accused", Tome said. Moreover, the local commanders of such soldiers had also been found to be lukewarm in their support for disciplinary action of this kind.

Relevant investigations are further complicated by the fact that sexual violence is endemic in eastern DRC. According to Patrick Barbier, the head of the Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) mission in Bunia, MSF had received between 10 and 20 individuals alleging to have been exploited by MONUC soldiers, but MSF had so far treated a total of about 1,500 sexual attacks in the Bunia area.

Justine Masika Bihamba, the coordinator of a grassroots NGO based in Bunia, Synergies des femmes pour les victimes de violences sexuelles (Women’s Synergy for Victims of Sexual Violence), said: "In Goma, we have heard of only two cases of rape by MONUC troops. But that is because the troops offer money to their victims so they don’t file a complaint, and then [the victims] won’t speak to us."

Meanwhile, residents of areas patrolled by MONUC troops in Bunia have set up community groups to brief potential victims. Deogratias Amandiyo leads a community network for the protection of the Bankoko neighbourhood in Bunia. The network organises meetings with residents, during which the organisers brief parents and children on the risks of sexual exploitation. "We tell parents not to let their children wander alone near the [MONUC] troops, but it’s hard because children want to move around freely," Amandiyo said.

Within MONUC, several measures can be taken to limit the problem, such as imposing codes of conduct, promulgating mission-specific directives, designating "off-limits" sites, or enforcing curfews. UN missions also have human rights and child protection advisers, as well as mission personnel conduct officers.

In the DRC, MONUC troops are under orders to return to their compound every night, according to Tome. "It is the responsibility of the contingent to maintain discipline," she said. The UN mission organises briefings for soldiers first arriving to join the peacekeeping operation. For instance, there is an HIV/AIDS training course when soldiers first arrive, delivered by MONUC’s HIV-awareness officer. But ultimately, it was their national authorities that were responsible for the training of their soldiers, Tome said.

The recently appointed head of the new UN Operation in Burundi, Carolyn McAskie, told IRIN in another interview: "One of the big issues is the fact that these troops are lent to UN for the purposes of the UN mission."

She added: "The discipline issues come under the regime of soldiers' own home country, and we want to change that. Right now, when something happens, we can ask the contributing country to send the troops home and have them disciplined at home, but we've no guarantee they'll be disciplined. But we have to change that, there has to be a very clear threat of discipline to anyone who misbehaves in this way," she added.

In this respect, however, resolution 1422, passed by the UN Security Council in July 2002, limits the competency of the International Criminal Court to prosecute peacekeepers. And, according to Johnston of International Alert: "It is not realistic to think this will change anytime soon."