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Protecting Whistleblowers since 1977

How to end Sexual Abuse in UN Peacekeeping Missions

Bea Edwards, May 31, 2016

On May 13, Jane Holl Lute, the Special Coordinator on improving the UN response to sexual exploitation and abuse, spoke to an informal session of the United Nations General Assembly. She opened her remarks by saying that “We can stop admiring the problem, and begin to pursue vigorously solutions to this problem” (linked video min. 16:55). For nearly half an hour, she lectured the delegates sternly about the action plan, tool kits, mechanisms and standards needed to prevent future sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers.

There was not much new here. On the contrary, virtually all of it has been said (or written) before, with the same conviction and solemnity. And with the same dismal lack of results.

For example, nearly four years ago, in 2012, the Secretary General introduced:

…[A]n enhanced program of action to combat sexual exploitation and abuse, a key aspect of which was the appointment of an independent team of experts to assess how four peacekeeping missions were addressing the challenge. In 2013, the Departments of Peacekeeping Operations and of Field Support established an interdepartmental and inter-agency working group to study and build on the findings of the team of experts and consider them in the context of experience gained by the Organization over time. The recommendations of the working group were discussed at a high-level meeting of senior leaders in January 2015.

And that was it. While the high-level meeting was ramping up, we now know, contingents of peacekeepers deployed under UN Security Council resolution in the Central African Republic (CAR) were sexually abusing boys.

That same year, faced with waves of allegations of abuses, the Secretary General responded predictably. He appointed a special panel to investigate the issue. The panel, in turn, recommended a Coordination Unit supported by a working group. In February 2016 the Secretary General appointed Ms. Lute, the Special Coordinator.

One of her predecessors in this role was Prince Zeid Ra’ad Zeid Al-Hussein of Jordan, who served as the Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on Sexual Exploitation and Abuse 11 years ago. When briefing the Security Council in 2006, Zeid spoke much as Ms. Lute did earlier this month. He condemned sexual abuses as repugnant acts that strike at the credibility of both the peacekeeping operation in question and the United Nations as a whole.

Moreover, in response to Zeid’s report, the Department of Peacekeeping Operations established a task force to develop guidance and tools to address sexual exploitation and abuse in the missions effectively.

In the elapsed decade little has changed. In fact, even the principal players are the same. Zeid was then the Secretary General’s Special Advisor. Now he is the High Commissioner for Human Rights who badly bungled the handling of allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation in 2014 and 2015. Zeid’s actions were so inept that the Secretary General had to appoint Ms. Lute to prepare new tool kits. And Ms. Lute herself has been around this block before. More than once, in fact. She became the UN Assistant Secretary-General for Mission Support in the Department of Peacekeeping Operations in August, 2003 and then served as acting Under Secretary while helping to establish the Department of Field Support. Ms. Lute finally held the post of Assistant Secretary-General for Peacebuilding Support before leaving the UN. Consequently, she is now coordinating the implementation of recommendations to repair glaring deficits that she herself helped to create some years ago.

The real truth here – if we might tell it for just a moment – is that addressing sexual abuse by peacekeepers, UN or otherwise, is not that hard. The institution doing it, though, has to be committed to hearing the truth, protecting those who tell it from retaliation, acting swiftly in cooperation with law enforcement and disciplining those who are guilty.

In the case over which Zeid just presided, none of these things happened. All of the bad actors either remain in place (Zeid himself), or retired with full benefits (Joan Dubinsky, Carman Lapointe). Another outstanding member of the group who managed the retaliation announced that she will run for the post of Secretary Generaal (Susana Malcorra). 

In contrast, Anders Kompass, who reported the abuses to law enforcement, was pilloried, and he will leave the UN.  Miranda Brown, who reported the abuses and the mistreatment of Kompass to the US Mission in Geneva, also lost her job.

Zeid remains in place as the High Commissioner of Human Rights. In Ms. Brown’s legal efforts to secure reinstatement, Zeid refused mediation on May 20th.

For her part, Ms. Lute told the General Assembly that some reluctance to report sexual abuse in the missions…”[S]tems from the fact that people don’t in all cases know what to do or  where to go or to whom to report…”

That’s not really accurate.  In fact, they do know, but they also know that as soon as they report abuse, they are in the line of fire of retaliators, just as Kompass and Brown were.  This is an inevitable consequence of a lack of accountability.

In our experience at the Government Accountability Project (GAP), where we’ve worked for a decade to protect UN whistleblowers, and we know they disclose corruption and crime because they want something to be done – they want something to change. They will risk their jobs and careers, even their lives, but they won’t do it for nothing.

Kompass and Brown disclosed sexual abuses in the CAR to authorities they believed would act effectively.  Kompass was improperly suspended and then investigated for ‘leaking.’ Brown, too, was targeted for punitive treatment because she was a whistleblower.  Everyone who sees what they saw, sees also what happened to them at the hands of senior UN officials, none of whom were disciplined at all.

Many – if not most – soldiers or police or civilians, seeing child abuse, would try to stop it, even recognizing that there might be risks.  But faced with the certainty of continuing abuse for the victims, retaliation for themselves, and impunity for the abusers and their protectors, why would anyone speak out, even about the gravest abuses? 

Tragically, in our experience over the past 11 years, the Organization has consistently failed to protect whistleblowers from being punished for reporting abuses, while consulting bureaucrats as if they were experts, only to ignore both the crimes and the criminals. Every five years or so, the UN runs this play again – the commission, the coordinator, the recommendations – then the lecturing, and in this case hectoring, appearance of the Special Adviser on sexual abuse who delivers a sermon about what must be done. It’s all a closed loop that never admits an honest broker authorized to stop talking and act.

 If the UN really wants to do as Ms. Lute suggested and pursue a solution to the gross abuses reported among peacekeepers, the Organization must protect its whistleblowers and discipline the guilty. Simple – but difficult – as that. Mr. Kompass deserves a commendation. Dr. Brown needs her job back.