A British nonprofit released a report Tuesday on the widespread sexual abuse of children by international peacekeeping troops and humanitarian aid workers. Twenty-three organizations were linked to such cases, with United Nations forces making up a disproportionate number of alleged offenders. Who's responsible for the bad behavior of U.N. peacekeepers in the field?
Troop-contributing nations. U.N. member countries are expected to volunteer portions of their armed forces to serve in peacekeeping missions; currently there are nearly 75,000 troops on active duty, the vast majority of whom come from developing nations in Africa and South Asia. Contributing nations maintain exclusive jurisdiction over their military troops, which means that neither the United Nations nor the host country can take legal action against soldiers. Though the United Nations has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to sexual exploitation and abuse, the most severe action it can take is repatriation of the accused—at the contributing nation's expense—and, if the accused is eventually found guilty, a block on future service in U.N. missions.Investigations into serious violations of U.N. rules, which include sexual exploitation, are conducted by members of the U.N. Office of Internal Oversight Services, and the final decision to repatriate is made by the New York headquarters of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations. In 2007, large numbers of Moroccan peacekeepers in Ivory Coast and Sri Lankan troops in Haiti were sent home for sexual offenses.
Repatriated military offenders rarely face criminal prosecution in their home nations, however, largely because of a lack of political will and reluctance on the governments' part to publicly admit to acts of wrongdoing. In addition, cases are often thrown out because evidence gathered on the ground by U.N. investigators fails to meet the nation's own criminal-procedure standards. Sufficient evidence can be difficult to collect in unstable conflict zones, particularly in communities where issues of sexual abuse carry heavy social stigma. In recent years, the OIOS has taken steps to streamline and professionalize its investigative procedures, and the DPKO has established a Conduct and Discipline Unit with eight field offices. (The report released Tuesday noted that the United Nations' commitment to investigate and publicize allegations of abuse probably contributed to the high number of reported cases within its ranks.)
Military personnel are only one category of U.N. peacekeepers, however. There are also large numbers of civilians in the field, including U.N. officials, non-U.N. specialists known as "experts on mission," and civilian police units. These staffers have legal immunity regarding acts performed in their official capacity, with the highest-ranking officials enjoying the same privileges as diplomatic envoys. The secretary-general can waive this immunity—and therefore allow a case to be brought to trial in the host country—if he determines that the accused was acting in a nonofficial capacity and that the local government has sufficient legal systems in place to conduct such a trial. Since most conflict zones lack proper judicial and police organizations, immunity is rarely waived.
Civilian personnel found to have committed offenses can be fined, demoted, suspended, or—most drastically—summarily dismissed and repatriated. As with military peacekeepers, civilians who have been sent home often escape further punishment, and for similar reasons. In addition, many countries claim that they lack the extraterritorial jurisdiction to prosecute civilian crimes committed outside their boundaries. Problems may also arise when U.N. rules conflict with the contributing nation's laws. For example, a 2003 bulletin from the secretary-general stipulates that sex with children under the age of 18 is strictly prohibited for all peacekeepers, but the age of consent may be lower in a given peacekeeper's home country.
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Explainer thanks Katherine Andrews of the Henry L. Stimson Center and Dominic Nutt of Save the Children UK.