How We Found Unreported Claims of UN Peacekeeper Abuse

July 24, 2018
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by Leila Miller Tow Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowships

Over 2,000 young women and children have alleged to have been victims of UN peacekeepers since the early 1990s. But only a small fraction of those they’ve accused have been held accountable.

The UN has recorded only 53 uniformed peacekeepers and one civilian that have been sent to jail for these crimes. A 2005 UN report recommended that member states set up courts martial in mission areas to facilitate gathering witnesses and evidence. For civilian peacekeepers, it recommended an international agreement to ensure the prosecution of those facing allegations.

There’s been no widespread effort by UN member states to adopt the measures. Meanwhile, more abuse allegations continue to emerge.

FRONTLINE producer Ramita Navai investigated the steps the UN has taken to deter abuse and why the problem has persisted. She traveled to the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic to look for previously unidentified victims and witness how the trauma has changed their lives.

We spoke to Navai for FRONTLINE’s newest documentary, UN Sex Abuse Scandal, about how she found these victims, why they often don’t report their abuse, and why there’s a lack of criminal accountability.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

You found individuals who had never before reported being sexually abused by UN peacekeepers. Was this easier or harder than you expected?

The UN say they have really good mechanisms for getting people to report to them, that they do a lot of work in the field trying to spread the message, and they say this with absolute confidence. Yet, after only a few days of arriving in both the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo, we found so many women and children who say they were sexually abused or exploited by UN peacekeepers. It shocked us. Crucially, they hadn’t reported this abuse to the UN, which says to me that UN numbers nowhere near reflect how big the actual problem is.

Why does this reporting gap exist?

There are lots of different reasons people don’t report their abuse. One is shame. They’re embarrassed. They just want it to go away. They don’t want anyone to know. They think if they report it, more and more people will know. For some of them, they fear they will lose their chance of marrying – no one will want to marry them – which has happened.

Another reason is that they simply don’t know how. We went to the town of Bambari, about 250 miles north of the capital Bangui in the Central African Republic. These are very isolated places, really cut off communities, and many of them don’t even know what the UN is let alone how they can report something like this to the authority.

And of course, there are some who have heard that their neighbors have reported and nothing happened, so they think, ‘what’s the point?’

You tracked down victims of Didier Bourguet, a former UN employee who was convicted in France of raping two girls in Africa but who has faced more allegations. You asked the acting head of the Democratic Republic of Congo mission why the UN hasn’t found more of Bourguet’s victims when it took your team just a day. Has the UN prioritized identifying victims?

It doesn’t seem like it has. The secretary general has said that fighting exploitation and abuse is a top priority. The UN does talk a good talk, and the UN, it does try, it does make an effort. We went on some outreach programs – they go to schools, they try to spread the message, but something is clearly going wrong here.

These are very sensitive issues. When we had gotten in touch with some of the other women that Didier Bourguet had raped, sexually abused as children, they said to us that if they were to talk about this they would have to talk about it in a really sensitive way, away from their husbands. They didn’t want them to know. They didn’t want anyone in the community to know.

We were finding that the UN was calling victims and telling them that they must come to headquarters. When some of the women explained that they didn’t want to be seen at the base, or maybe they wanted to do this in a more discreet way, the UN didn’t seem to be accommodating.

Why did these victims decide to speak to you?

They’re the people that have gone past shame because their community already knew. They had already been ostracized. They had nothing to lose. They simply didn’t know how to report their cases or where to turn and so they wanted as much help as possible.

The father of one young girl we spoke to, she was called Daniella, she’d been raped as a little girl by French peacekeepers. He was taking Daniella around with him to his neighbors because Daniella had suffered absolute stigma. She was absolutely ostracized from her community as a little girl for being raped. Her father was a really enlightened, forward thinking strong man, [and he] took her from neighbor to neighbor explaining why Daniella should hold her head up high and why the community should support her.

For him, it was really important to talk out and let the world know what was happening. That his daughter had been raped and nobody had been in touch with him. He had received no help, no compensation, and he had no idea what had happened to these peacekeepers.

The film opens with a woman named Annie who said she was given a dollar by a peacekeeper from South Africa after he raped her. Others also recounted being given small sums after experiencing abuse. What are the power dynamics at play?

Annie’s story in some many ways represents the story of women in Congo. She said she watched her family, her parents and her siblings murdered in front of her. Then she was gang raped by the M23 rebels. Then the government soldiers took the town. She was elated, she thought they’d all be saved, and then she was then gang raped by government soldiers. At that point she fled, and that’s when she was raped by a UN peacekeeper sent to protect that population against raping soldiers.

When you speak to someone like Annie, it shocks you and it’s deeply affecting and deeply depressing. She’s not getting the psycho-social counseling she needs. She’s in absolute pain and suffers depression.

The film reported that only 53 uniformed peacekeepers have been sent to jail. Why have so few been prosecuted?

If you’re a military peacekeeper, it is the responsibility of the troop-contributing country to try you, to convict you, to hold you to account, because the UN doesn’t have jurisdiction. The military peacekeeper, whether he’s a uniformed policeman, military police or soldier, usually simply gets kicked out of peacekeeping, sent back to their country, gets a slap on the wrist. They’ll say that either there wasn’t enough evidence to try their soldier or by the time they got involved to investigate or by the time the UN started the investigation it was so far off the alleged abuse the evidence had been lost.

Another reason is that often it’s believed by many who talk to me off the record about this that they [the member states] don’t want the shame. They don’t want the attention.

You visited the Central African Republic where strict non-fraternization policies have been implemented to keep peacekeepers’ minds off of sex. Has this worked and have you seen any effective solutions to prevent abuse?

The numbers show it hasn’t really worked because abuse is still happening, exploitation is still happening. The UN is still logging cases on its website, and as we know, that’s not representative of the real cases on the ground.

I think you can have all the non-fraternization, zero tolerance policies, outreach programs in the world. It’s not going to stop it [the abuse] unless there’s accountability. That’s the crux of it. There isn’t accountability. All the UN can do, because the UN doesn’t have jurisdiction, is simply sack, dismiss the UN employee. They can hand them over to his relevant home country authority but only if they have extraterritorial jurisdiction can they [that country] try him.

What will it take to have accountability?

There are two solutions that were suggested by [UN high commissioner] Prince Zeid. One – countries adopting extraterritorial jurisdiction. For civilians, if they are caught abusing, the UN can hand them over to their home country and the authorities will prosecute, as was the case with Didier Bourguet.

Number two, better screening processes, which the UN say they are doing. Screening is important to make sure offenders can’t get back into the system.

Previous secretary generals, they always suggest on-site court martials as a way to tackle this. That would mean that the troop-contributing country would try their guys on the ground. And that means that they’d have easier access to evidence and witnesses. That’s one of the reasons that troop-contributing countries say they can’t try their men when they return home.

Member states have objected to the UN high commissioner’s recommendation to create a mechanism so that personnel could be tried in their home countries for crimes committed abroad. Why do they oppose that?

We were told either because they don’t want the attention, or they just don’t want outsiders meddling in their domestic affairs. They see it as a domestic problem. They want to deal with it themselves.

If member states won’t agree, there’s nothing that the UN secretariat can do. His argument is how much does the UN need troop contributing countries to provide troops, and how much do troop contributing countries want to be in UN peacekeeping?

It’s a pretty symbiotic relationship… It’s good for the troop-contributing countries because it gives them prestige. For the poorer countries, it gives them a little bit of money. Crucially, it gives these troops training. On the other side, we were told that if there’s an impending genocide, the UN’s desperate for troops. As a US ambassador to the UN told us, with somewhere like the Central African Republic when it looked like a potential genocide, you need troops on the ground yesterday. So how much leverage does the secretariat actually have is a really interesting question.

One of the larger questions in the film is whether the ultimate responsibility for these abuses lies with the UN or with the member states. Do you have an answer?

It was quite frustrating when I was talking to UN officials and they passed the buck – that’s how I felt. They passed the buck and said don’t talk to us, talk to the member states.

It [the UN] makes these very grand speeches and is very open and public about the need to address this issue. And yet, when you ask direct questions: what’s going wrong, who’s in charge, who’s responsible. They can’t answer those questions themselves. Ultimately, the victims suffer, as always.

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