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Asheville Citizen-Times: U.N. Not So Clean Anymore

July 12, 2008
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By GAP International Program Director Bea Edwards and International Program Officer Shelley Walden. Versions of this op-ed also appeared in Garden City Telegram (NJ).

The United Nations was scrambling. Reports were surfacing, based on firsthand knowledge, of U.N. peacekeepers grossly exploiting their positions by sexually abusing destitute citizens entrusted to their care.

While a remarkably similar story is currently unfolding, the allegations above emerged four years ago. Former U.N. employee Dr. Andrew Thomson witnessed these atrocities in the early part of this decade and recounted his experiences, together with other staffers, in his 2004 memoir, “Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures.” That book not only exposed sexual abuse by U.N. forces, but also described senior U.N. officials’ inactions in the face of dysfunctional U.N. security and rampant financial corruption.

Thomson’s reward for coming forward with the truth? Initially, he was fired. Due to media pressure and legal assistance from our group and others, he was rehired months later and promoted to a position of greater responsibility. In the wake of Thomson’s revelations and the Oil-for-Food scandal, then-U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan announced he was working to improve whistleblower protections for all U.N. workers. In late 2005, Annan issued a whistleblower protection policy that was a breakthrough for freedom of expression at intergovernmental organizations. This crucial response had impeccable logic: given the breadth of the organization, U.N. officials could not possibly monitor all staff all the time. The organization had to rely on its own staffers to report on serious misconduct and gross ethical lapses.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago. Eerily similar allegations have emerged that U.N. peacekeeping troops demanded sexual favors from children in return for food in parts of the Sudan, Ivory Coast, and Haiti. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon immediately responded, announcing that a thorough investigation will take place, adding that he has a “zero tolerance policy” for these types of actions.

Unfortunately, Ban himself has allowed exactly this type of grotesque misconduct to fester, as he continually hobbles whistleblower protection policies and delays establishing an effective internal justice system that would protect U.N. workers, peacekeeping forces, and contractors from retaliation when they report internal crimes. It is precisely these accountability measures – which fight and deter abuse – which Ban has weakened.

In August 2007, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), a department rife with allegations of wrongdoing, opted-out of the jurisdiction of the U.N. Ethics Office, which enforces the organization’s whistleblower protection policy. Rather than challenge this secession, the Secretary-General issued a rule disarming Kofi Annan’s comprehensive policy, effectively allowing for all U.N. funds and programs to establish their own codes of ethics. Many have done exactly that, generating ad hoc ethics offices, improvised investigative procedures, and whistleblower policies that lack guidelines or parameters.

Moreover, Ban has proposed that certain categories of U.N. employees — including peacekeepers – be denied access to the new internal justice system for U.N. personnel, which is set to become operational in 2009. This is in direct breach of the recommendations made by a U.N. panel of external experts, who explicitly recommended that the system apply to all U.N. personnel, including peacekeepers.

Ban explains his position by arguing that U.N. peacekeeping forces remain subject to the disciplinary procedures of their home countries. This position is unrealistic — these forces are deployed and paid by the United Nations, and they should be accountable, while on missions, to the United Nations. Countries sending peacekeepers to the United Nations have no reliable, systematic source of information about their soldiers’ conduct.

The United Nations should effectively monitor the conduct of its forces. Ban could strengthen whistleblower protections, extend them uniformly across the U.N. system, strengthen and expand the jurisdiction of the U.N. Ethics Office, and expediently establish a reformed internal justice system that both guarantees the rights of conscientious U.N. workers and holds the renegades accountable. But he has not done so, and he seems to be set against it.

The world will never know if these crimes against children could have been averted had the Secretary-General enforced whistleblower protections for U.N. employees instead of weakening them. Until the United Nations protects its staff members when they report crimes, future scandals like these will be repeated.

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