“Do you think it is true?”, the UN official doubtfully asked me last year when I first reported a case of alleged rape committed by UN peacekeepers working in the Central African Republic (CAR).
So long as this reaction – disbelief – remains the first response to sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) allegations against UN personnel, continuous efforts to improve the prevention and response of such crimes will likely go nowhere.
My first humanitarian mission was in Bunia, in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, in 2006. The UN’s peacekeeping mission – then known as MONUC – was facing a string of SEA allegations, and my senior colleagues were describing to me the challenges they faced bringing them to light.
In a country experiencing a sexual violence epidemic – at the time I was working on a programme that assisted rape victims as young as three – I mistakenly thought that abuse by peacekeepers would be the easiest to stop.
Thirteen years later though, sexual abuse committed by UN personnel still makes the headlines despite a string of new UN policies designed to address it.
The UN’s zero-tolerance policy has led to an increase in reporting but not a reduction of cases, while strategies and protocols put in place to improve information-sharing – within the UN and with NGOs too – and to launch more timely investigations have not led to more assistance and justice for victims themselves.
Investigating sexual abuse is a tough task, and the elements needed to carry it out properly – experienced investigators, access to victims in conflict areas, the collaboration of troop-contributing countries that are responsible for investigating their own soldiers – are still rarely in place.
Since my time in Bunia, I have come across many cases of serious misconduct by peacekeepers – in CAR and elsewhere – but I hadn’t been directly involved in an investigation until last year.
After an outbreak of violence, I was informed about alleged cases of sex abuse and went to meet the victims. The case is still open and must remain confidential, but certain details can be shared – details that reveal wider problems with how the UN investigates SEA.
The first problem is disbelief. In my case, the UN official’s initial reaction to my report was that the allegations were fake – concocted following a wave of anti-UN sentiment in the country, and as a way for the victims to gain money and support. That reflex changed the entire course of the investigation.
Since the official didn’t believe the story, victims were saddled with the burden of bringing cumbersome corroborating evidence of abuse, including elements such as the nationality of the peacekeepers involved.
Besides being deeply humiliating, this process was likely to confirm the investigator’s assumption. Over the months, victim testimonies became confused, sometimes contradictory – as recalling a traumatic event can be – and the case was about to be dismissed.
If peacekeepers are deployed to protect civilians, the UN cannot be impartial. UN investigations are key to supporting victims’ allegations and unearthing evidence. They can also help to pressure troop-contributing countries to start their own investigations.
My experience clearly demonstrated that the UN cannot effectively fight sexual abuse if it doesn’t take the victim’s side and believe the allegations made. When the life of a person is at stake, the UN should be the prosecutor, not the judge.
The second problem was time. Because UN officials considered the allegations false, the cases weren’t taken seriously until two months after the event. Such a delay proved disastrous for the investigation. When the UN’s Office for Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) started inquiring, some of the victims had already moved to another town to escape stigmatisation and public shame.
The delay also made it more difficult to identify the peacekeepers allegedly involved, due to battalions and senior commanders rotating out the country. If the troop-contributing countries are usually reluctant to open an internal investigation, the slowness of the UN machine gave them a perfect excuse.
A proper inquiry takes time, but there are a few preliminary steps that cannot wait – from gathering victim and witness testimonies to offering victims medical and psychological support. The UN should invest more in this initial response, not only because it guarantees the success of the investigation but also because it is a matter of human dignity.
The third problem was accountability: the victims I assisted were all kept completely in the dark about their cases. Over the months, no investigator proactively informed them about how the inquiry was progressing, their legal options, or simply checked in on their welfare. There is no UN protocol obliging them to do so.
Victims, their families, and the communities they live in have a right to know what is happening, even when it becomes evident that very little can be done against perpetrators. The UN should revise its policy and name a focal point for each individual SEA case, someone whose first concern is the victim’s safety and well-being.
Further steps could also be taken in CAR – and other peacekeeping missions – to improve the quality of reporting, response, and follow-up of SEA cases.
Better information-sharing with other UN agencies and NGOs could, for example, help speed up inquiries and avoid victims having to suffer the burden of multiple interviews.
But, first and foremost, the UN must make sure its staff believe victims’ testimonies. This means pushing back against the dangerous habit of automatically assuming that victims make allegations only in the hope of receiving money and support – support that is rarely forthcoming.