THE BLOG

In UN Rape Cases, Diplomats' Resignations Do Not Equal Criminal Accountability

The resignation of Babacar Gaye as the UN Chief of Mission in the Central African Republic (CAR) following reports of another rape involving peacekeepers there is a telling response on the part of the Secretary General. As news of a sexual exploitation and abuse appears in the press, the United Nations hierarchy responds as if the issue were a diplomatic crisis rather than a series of crimes. This is, of course, because the UN is a diplomatic institution. Of necessity, the Organization relies heavily on elaborate protocols, third-person indirect speech and deference to the governments of member states, especially those represented on the Security Council.

A crime, however, requires certain direct, official responses, many of them intrusive and unpleasant for witnesses and suspects.

In short, the United Nations is not equipped to address criminal conduct in its ranks. The Secretariat's reaction to the reports of rape and sodomy that have surfaced this summer involving UN personnel, either as suspects or reporters, make that much abundantly clear. Nonetheless, UN personnel enjoy immunity from prosecution unless the United Nations waives it.

Typically, when a diplomatic incident occurs -- the failure of negotiations over a conflict, for example, or offense taken by a member state to an impolitic UN statement -- someone in some way related to the event must resign or be transferred. This person is not necessarily the official who botched the negotiations or made the offending statement. His or her departure is a signal of the Secretary General's contrition. It is an overture to the member state intended to restore cordial relations.

In contrast, when a crime occurs -- particularly a violent one -- society exacts accountability from the responsible party. Not just anyone will do. Restitution must come from the criminal. The identification, prosecution and incarceration of that person, specifically, protects society from a recurrence of the crime at the hands of the deviant and a deterrent to others who might consider the same conduct acceptable.

Simply selecting a dispensable diplomat from somewhere in the ranks to show the world that the UN is serious about prohibiting rape is both inappropriate and unconvincing. In fact, to be blunt, it's ridiculous. This latest resignation reveals just how out of touch the Secretariat is about violent crime.

Yet this is the way the UN has responded throughout the spring and summer to a series of disturbing reports about the abuse of vulnerable people by peacekeepers in Africa. Look at what has happened. In 2014, non-UN peacekeepers sodomized little boys at a camp for the displaced in the CAR. After a major public flap in 2015, Flavia Pansieri, the Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights who received the offending report, resigned, purportedly for medical reasons.

When reports of rape surfaced again in August 2015, Gaye, as Chief of Mission in the CAR, resigned at the request of the Secretary General. A reasonable person might ask, though, what about the rapist and the sodomizers? Who are they? What happened to them? Where are they?

And the victims? What became of them?

The treatment of Anders Kompass, the senior human rights official in the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) who reported the repeated sodomizing of hungry children by non-UN French peacekeepers to the French government, is illustrative of the confusion at the UN. Kompass, a 30-year veteran of human rights work, long experienced in UN protocols, responded in the best possible manner. He respected external channels of communication with UN member states by reporting the crimes to the French Mission to the UN in Geneva, with the assurance that, through discreet and direct contacts, French law enforcement would receive the evidence needed to investigate effectively.

When, eight months later (for whatever reason), the Secretariat decided to react to the fact that Kompass communicated the crimes, with the names of the victims, to the French Mission before submitting the report about them to his superior at the OHCHR, the High Commissioner requested his resignation. Apparently, the significant issue here is not the fact of the abuse, but rather the evidence provided to the police and the order in which the crimes were reported.

For violating these procedures, Kompass was asked to resign. This, apparently, in the Secretary General's mind, equals zero-tolerance of sexual exploitation and abuse, in compliance with his rhetoric. This is a diplomatic solution: there is political blow-back about human rights abuse and therefore someone involved in human rights reporting must resign.

An experienced human rights worker -- as well as a criminal investigator -- knows, however, that the most urgent matter in a situation of ongoing abuse is that the criminals be stopped and stay stopped, within the confines of national law.

Making an example of someone in the chain of command -- while perhaps acceptable in a political setting -- is not only ineffective in a criminal case, it's perverse. The messages sent to both the perpetrators and to witnesses are destructive of morale and permissive of criminal conduct. An abusive soldier will understand that if he rapes a civilian, his superior will resign. That may be quite all right with him. And human rights officials will understand that if they report abuse, they themselves may become the targets of official reprisal for bearing the bad news. So they'll keep quiet.

And this, apparently, equals zero-tolerance for sexual exploitation and abuse in UN peacekeeping missions.

The question remains, then: What would an effective zero-tolerance policy look like?

While it is difficult to map out such a policy completely, it is possible to identify a realistic and practical starting point: the UN must allow the governments involved to investigate criminal allegations without interference. This means that legal immunities for UN staff must be waived in these cases.