The U.N.'s Dirtiest Secret
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because: human rights.
Pooja Bhatia is an OZY editor and writer. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Economist, and was once the mango-eating champion of Port-au-Prince.
In principle, the United Nations is a benevolent body, devoted to peace, human rights and championing the vulnerable. The reality is different, according to Paula Donovan, who is engaged in a high-profile fight against peacekeeper sexual abuse and exploitation. In recent weeks, the organization she co-directs, AIDS-Free World, has leaked documents that suggest that the United Nations has sorely failed to live up to its policy of “zero tolerance” for peacekeeper abuse. In March, it leaked an expert report, commissioned in 2013, that described the U.N.’s widespread failure to report peacekeeper abuse and warned that it could be “the most significant risk to U.N. peacekeeping operations.” And last month, AIDS-Free World leaked internal reports describing the rape of young boys in the Central African Republic by French peacekeepers. The U.N. official who reported the allegations has been suspended.
Donovan spoke to OZY just before launching a campaign against abuse, Code Blue. An edited version of our conversation follows.
Why didn’t U.N. leadership make its expert report on sexual abuse public?
I don’t know. One possibility is that the secretary-general didn’t know about it — that actually, the entire U.N. is based on the plausible deniability of the secretary-general. You send the [expert] report up the chain of command, but just to a certain point; the secretary-general never sees it, so he can look and sound genuine when he conveys only select parts of the report to governments.
The U.N.’s organizational culture is based on fear. If something isn’t going well in the world, you can blame the member states. If something in the organization is not going well, everyone suppresses bad news and doesn’t pass it along.
Why is there so much fear within the U.N.?
It’s probably the most multinational employer in the world, which means that a lot of people have moved from their home countries to work with the U.N. They don’t want to lose their jobs. They’re very good jobs with very good pay. It’s much more comfortable just to keep your head down.
And while it is politically correct to insist on zero tolerance for the exploitation and abuse of women and children, underlying that public concern is dismissiveness. We’ve actually heard several people say: “There are an awful lot of conflicts in the world, and the world is a mess. Do sexual abuse and exploitation really deserve so much attention?”
What’s your response to that?
Sexual exploitation and abuse are just completely unacceptable, and under any circumstances must be prevented. Dismissing them as though they were soft issues is wrong. And we know it’s not a one-bad-apple problem. The level at which it’s happening at the U.N. — every single person is complicit. They might not be committing it, but they are not preventing or reporting it, either. And U.N. immunity protects its staff from having any involvement in legal processes, whatever their roles.
So what should the U.N. do?
Acknowledge and then clarify that the protective shield being applied, the Convention on Privileges and Immunities, was actually never meant to create a separate rule of law for U.N. staff when it comes to allegations of sexual abuse. The convention was meant to let international civil servants do their work without the threat that a country could use them as political pawns and haul them into jail.
How is immunity waived currently?
On a case-by-case basis. For instance, the secretary-general must first be asked to waive the barrier protecting a U.N. staff member if he is accused of rape. Once authorities finally get the immunity waiver, with permission to arrest the accused, he may already have fled. The delay can mean that witnesses have been paid off, or that the rape victim has been threatened. Given that the crime scene can’t be cordoned off and evidence can’t be preserved until immunity is waived, by the time investigators arrive, there’s not a case.
Would more women peacekeepers help?
Definitely. Sex abuse is a key example of why lack of gender parity is so dangerous for humankind: In military contingents and even in humanitarian assistance, you find a kind of hyper-masculinity. All-male environments are unnatural, and can breed a cowboy culture in which sensibilities are very macho.
Some of this sounds like the Catholic Church and its sex allegations.
A complete overhaul of peacekeeping operations is absolutely essential. If the U.N. doesn’t fix this, sexual abuse and exploitation will kill the essence of peacekeeping, and then it will be the death of the U.N.’s highest ideals. I actually do think they can fix this. But it’s going to take a lot of work and a lot of will.