Last week’s report from the Associated Press revealing the bust of a child sex ring run by United Nations peacekeepers in Haiti was far from the first time the United Nations has been associated with child-abuse rings. The U.N. has for decades been rocked by accusations of sex crimes ranging from rape and abuse of women and minors committed in war zones to participation in human trafficking, prostitution and even production of child pornography involving senior U.N. officials and members of foreign governments. The horrific acts often go unpunished as the result of an overly bureaucratic investigation process, with many perpetrators being sent home where they in many cases do not face prosecution in their own state.
I. Abuses in Haiti
On April 12th, 2017, Associated Press (AP) reported the breakup of a child sex ring that was being run in Haiti by Sri Lankan U.N. Peacekeepers between 2004 and 2007. The report revealed that at least 134 peacekeepers abused nine children and that in the wake of the incident, 114 were sent home. None of the abusers were ever charged in connection with the event. AP found that found that some 150 allegations of abuse and exploitation had been reported in Haiti alone between 2004 and 2016, with perpetrators coming from Bangladesh, Brazil, Jordan, Nigeria, Pakistan, Uruguay and Sri Lanka. Public Radio International reported that victims of Pakistani peacekeepers included victims who were mentally disabled. Reuters mentioned that only two of the abusers from Pakistan faced sentencing at home, and were given a mere year in prison for the crime once it was finally investigated by the Pakistani military.
II. Abuses In The Central African Republic And West Africa
Stories similar to those emerging from Haiti have also plagued the U.N.’s missions across Africa. On February 27th, 2016, the Washington Post reported that they had interviewed seven underage victims who claimed that they were sexually abused by peacekeepers from the U.N. MINUSCA mission in the Central African Republic (CAR). The Post also cited reports by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International which documented additional cases of child rape and murder committed by U.N. troops stationed in the CAR.
The shocking incidents first surfaced after an official from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), Anders Kompass, leaked documents and testimony to whistleblowing organization AIDS-Free World and French prosecutors. Kompass revealed that the abuse had been ongoing since before MINUSCA began in 2014, when French troops were sent to the CAR as part of Operation Sangaris. The abuses included cases of forced bestiality. The leak was just one of many instances which Kompass had heard about from coworkers and contemporaries in other parts of the U.N. Foreign Policy reported in April 2016 that more than 150 accusations of sexual misconduct had been filed by women and children with the U.N., though the true number of victims was likely much higher, with at least 108 cases reported in a single province alone.
Babacar Gaye, the Senegalese head of the U.N.’s mission in the CAR, was fired in the wake of the scandal. Although Anders Kompass was ultimately exonerated for leaking documents and information about the abuses, he resigned from the U.N. in June 2016, citing a total lack of accountability among U.N. officials and his frustration at the impunity with which they had ignored the allegations of misconduct. AIDS-Free World also published additional documents which outlined reports that had surfaced in 2001, revealing additional cases of sexual exploitation by peacekeepers in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
III. Involvement With Human Trafficking In The Balkans
On February 2012, The Guardian interviewed Kathryn Bolkovac, a whistleblower who outlined abuses committed by U.N. peacekeepers from the U.N. mission to Bosnia. The allegations included revelations that U.N. peacekeepers had abused underage victims in brothels and were also helping to facilitate sex trafficking, torture and rape committed by organized crime groups in the Balkans. In some cases, U.N. personnel themselves were buying and selling girls around Bosnia.
Bolkovac joined the mission after signing up with Dyncorp, a private military contractor who had supplied the U.N. with manpower for the mission. In the aftermath of her revelations of these crimes, Bolkovac was fired by Dyncorp, who claimed she had filed erroneous time-sheets despite a ruling by a British employment tribunal in 2002 to the contrary.
III. UNICEF Child Pornography Scandal
On June 1987, the New York Times reported that the Belgian headquarters of UNICEF was discovered to have been used to produce and store child pornography. The secret photographic studio was located in the basement of the Brussels building where the committee’s offices were housed. Belgian police reported that the studio was being used to take pornographic photographs of children, many of whom were of North African origin. Belgian police said more than 1,000 such photographs were seized, along with a mailing list of some 400 names in 15 European countries that had been prepared on the UNICEF office computer. A 45 year old UNICEF employee was arrested after police said he was hosting evening computer classes for children in the organization’s offices and making them pose for pornographic photographs. Police also discovered cowboy outfits and costumes which they stated were being used to stage sex games with minors.
Numerous individuals from multiple European countries were charged in connection with the discovery, including Jos Verbeek, the director of UNICEF in Belgium. The scandal led to 14 arrests in Belgium and others in Switzerland, France and Britain. The Guardian reported that former British Justice Ministry official Phillippe Carpentier was one of the individuals arrested in the United Kingdom, along with what it termed “a close associate, a top government official working on highly sensitive anti-terrorist legislation.”
It was reported at the time that UNICEF’s Belgian committee was linked to a criminal organization producing pornographic photographs of children and distributing them throughout Europe, and that the cell was thought to have ties to similar organizations in the United States and Japan. Images previously found during law enforcement operations in several other European countries appeared to have been taken in the UNICEF office in Brussels, according to investigators. Belgian police also raided the Research and Information Centre on Childhood and Sexuality, which had been founded four years earlier and had additional branches in Switzerland and France.
IV. Reasons For U.N. Failure To Adequately Address Abuse
The United Nations has been rightfully blasted for its apparent unwillingness to take action and prevent repeated instances of the sexual abuse and exploitation of both women and minors. A 1996 U.N. study, The Impact of Armed Conflict on Children, noted that in half the cases examined, the arrival of peacekeeping troops to war torn areas was associated with a rapid rise in child prostitution on those states. In almost all cases, perpetrators are never prosecuted for their crimes. This is partially a result of the way in which the U.N. functions: peacekeeping forces enjoy immunity from prosecution in the state they are deployed to for policing, which can only be waived by the U.N. secretary-general to assist the flow of justice. Before that can even happen however, investigators must be sent to establish that a crime did in fact take place, making the U.N. the judge, jury and executioner in many of the reported cases of abuse. This effectively results in an almost complete lack of convictions, such as in the case of the Haitian ring reported on by AP this year.
AIDS-Free World maintains a set of guidelines updated yearly by the U.N. in a lame and futile attempt to prevent sexual abuse and exploitation by its personnel. But these guidelines do not address the systemic problems resulting from the legal status of peacekeepers and investigative methods which contribute to the situation. Similarly, it does nothing to address the top-down corruption in the United Nations that was highlighted by the 1987 UNICEF child pornography scandal, which gives troubling context to the apparent disinterest of officials in dealing with allegations reported by whistleblowers such as Anders Kompass. Until the United Nations takes a serious approach to combatting sexual abuse committed by its officials and peacekeepers, repeated instances of this behavior will more than likely continue unabated.