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UN Security Council Meeting on Sexual Exploitation And Abuse

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Remarks at the UN Security Council Meeting on Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in UN Peacekeeping Operations

 

 

 

 

 

 

Speech by Ambassador Samantha Power
U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations
U.S. Mission to the United Nations
New York City
March 10, 2016
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Thank you, Mr. Secretary-General, for your briefing today, for the important report upon which it is based, and for your determined leadership in tackling what you have rightly called “a cancer in our system.” We know that you have faced considerable pushback against your efforts to bring to light these horrific abuses and to ensure that those responsible are held accountable. And we thank you for holding firm.

Let me begin by reading a quote: “The Security Council is deeply concerned with the allegations of sexual misconduct by United Nations peacekeeping personnel…The Security Council… recognizes the shared responsibility of the Secretary-General and all Member States to take every measure within their purview to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse by all categories of personnel in United Nations peacekeeping missions to enforce United Nations standards of conduct in that regard. The Security Council reiterates the importance of ensuring that sexual exploitation and abuse are properly investigated and appropriately punished.”

Those words were spoken in this chamber nearly 11 years ago – in May 2005 – by the Security Council President at the time. She was speaking on behalf of the Council at its first-ever meeting on the issue of sexual exploitation and abuse committed by UN peacekeepers. Like today’s meeting, that session had been convened following the release of a report commissioned by the Secretary-General at that time, Kofi Annan, in order to lay out a strategy for eliminating the scourge of such abuses in peacekeeping operations. The report, as many of you know, followed a series of disturbing allegations of SEA in 2004, not unlike the ones that have surfaced since last year.

Yet, as we all know, despite the commitment made by this Council over a decade ago to address this problem, the scourge of sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeepers persists. According to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s report released last week, 69 allegations of SEA were levied against uniformed and civilian personnel serving in peacekeeping missions last year – a 20 percent increase in reported violations from the previous year. More than half of the allegations in peacekeeping operations involve rape or sexual abuse of children. And these are just the cases we know about; as Special Representative of the Secretary-General Parfait Onanga-Anyanga, who took over as head of the UN peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic last August, has said – the cases reported are likely just the “tip of the iceberg.”

We have long known that one of the most effective ways to prevent sexual abuse and exploitation is to send a clear message that perpetrators will be held accountable. So it is deeply alarming that, according to the Secretary-General’s report, out of 69 allegations of SEA in 2015, in only 17 instances were investigations completed by January 31, 2016. Seventeen out of 69. And in only one of those cases did a country report to the UN that it had punished a perpetrator in response to a substantiated allegation. One out of 69. And the perpetrator in that case was found to have engaged in a sexually exploitive relationship; as punishment, he was suspended for nine whole days – nine days.

Now, some have argued that this discussion has no place in the UN Security Council, implying that they do not think sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeepers has an impact on international peace and security. They are mistaken. In addition to being a heinous abuse, SEA erodes the discipline of military and police units, and undermines the confidence of local communities in peacekeepers – both of which are critical to fulfilling UN Security Council mandates. More broadly, when those entrusted with being protectors become perpetrators, it undermines the credibility of peacekeeping missions everywhere, as well as the legitimacy of the UN writ large – and along with it, it undermines our ability to address effectively the serious threats of our time.

I have listened really hard to those who think that this Council has no role to play in overseeing discussions about what we do next on curbing sexual abuse and exploitations by peacekeepers. But I have to say, I honestly do not understand the argument – I don’t. It is this Council that sends peacekeepers into conflict areas, because we believe their presence is essential to promoting international peace and security.

We deem it our responsibility as a Council to oversee every part of their missions – how many soldiers and police to send, what their mandate is, when they can use force. And we give them clear mandates to protect civilians. So let me pose the question this way to the skeptics:

When governments attack civilians, it is our job.

When armed groups, non-state actors, attack civilians, it is our job.

When terrorists attack civilians, it is our job.

So why in the world, when the UN’s own peacekeepers are the ones attacking civilians – when peacekeepers commit the sickening crime of raping children – is it someone else’s job? Explain that. Why is that the exception?

The Security Council cannot have responsibility for protecting civilians against all threats, from all forces, except those whom we directly oversee.

As we all know, a crucial part of accountability is transparency. The UN, its Member States, and the Security Council need to know when soldiers and police are accused of abusing the privilege of wearing the blue helmet. We need to know whether those allegations are being adequately investigated and, where appropriate, punished. And victims and their communities – imagine if it was a member of our family – they need to know that justice is being served. Yet the opaqueness of the existing system has made it virtually impossible for any of us to know these things. All too often, we don’t know whether investigations have been opened. And even when we know investigations are ongoing, we don’t know whether they are being carried out promptly, thoroughly, or impartially. Without basic facts, it is impossible to enforce a zero-tolerance policy. It’s no coincidence that we’ve had a zero-tolerance policy for a long time, and yet, sexual abuse and exploitation allegations have risen – it’s not a coincidence. There’s not sufficient accountability to our own policy.

One of the most eloquent justices who ever served on the United States Supreme Court, Louis Brandeis, once said, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” Yet allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeepers too often are allowed to remain in the darkness, where the rot they cause continues to spread – to the detriment of the entire enterprise of peacekeeping.

That is why it is so important, Mr. Secretary-General, that your report for the first time brings to light the nationality of the personnel who face credible allegations of SEA. And it is why we commend the UN for starting to post on its website new allegations of SEA – including the date the report was received, information about the nationality of the accused, and whether the alleged victims are minors. It is through such reporting that we know that, in the first three months of this year alone, 26 additional allegations of SEA have been reported – a horrifying number.

We can and must do more to shine a bright light on this enduring problem. A place to start would be providing additional information on the status of investigations. For example, while we know that the majority of investigations into allegations of SEA from 2015 are “pending,” we do not know when those investigations were opened. This data is crucial for gauging whether countries are acting in a timely manner.

Now, some countries have adamantly opposed this push for greater transparency, in particular the practice of identifying the nationality of peacekeepers credibly alleged to have committed such abuses. They claim that it unfairly singles out troop and police contributing countries that are putting themselves at risk in some of the most difficult environments around the world – police and troop-contributing countries whose service we commend.

Let me be very, very clear: The vast majority of the 91,000 troops and 13,000 police in UN peacekeeping missions serve honorably and with courage, putting their lives on the line every day to protect people in countries very far from their own. They do not commit sexual abuse, nor do they turn a blind eye to it. And most troop-contributing countries are serious about holding to account soldiers and police from their forces who would perpetrate such abuses, recognizing that impunity for SEA undermines the effectiveness of their troop contingents as a whole, whether they are serving in a UN mission or any other mission.

Yet this fact, the fact that so many serve so honorably – the vast, vast majority – is all the more reason that troop-contributing countries and police contributing countries should want to bring these cases to light, to investigate them, to hold accountable those who have committed abuses. Those serving honorably are the ones who have the greatest incentive to prevent the sickening acts of a few from tarnishing the noble service of so many.

When peacekeepers commit sexual exploitation and abuse with impunity, the fault not only lies with the peacekeepers who commit these deplorable acts, or the commanders who look the other way, or the countries that fail to conduct proper investigations. The blame rests on all of us – including the countries that fail to adequately train peacekeepers to prevent and root out these problems; the Member States that fail to press troop and police contributing countries to hold perpetrators accountable; the UN institutions that fail to report on the magnitude of the problem or repatriate units when countries prove unable or unwilling to investigate credible allegations of abuse. This is an all-systems failure.

Let me just give one example. According to the UN, there were seven separate allegations of SEA committed by peacekeepers from the Democratic Republic of Congo in a single mission, MINUSCA, over the course of 2015; one allegation was reported in January, one in February, four in August, and one more in September. The majority of the alleged victims of these abuses were kids. As these allegations continued to add up, members of this Council – including the United States – pushed for repatriation of the unit. In the meantime, more and more victims continued to come forward. In January of this year – of 2016 – there were three more credible allegations of SEA against the same unit, followed by five more in February. Think about that: eight credible allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse reported against a single group of peacekeepers in just two months. And in seven of those instances, the alleged victims were children. How could we let that happen? All of us – how could we let that happen?

In late February, the entire contingent from DRC was repatriated – the first time the UN has ever repatriated an entire contingent for sexual exploitation and abuse. It was the right thing to do; it sends a clear message to all countries that there will be consequences for failing to address this serious problem. But it should never have taken so long. The Security Council was told the contingent would be repatriated. But this repatriation was delayed for operational reasons. That is unacceptable. The experience should force us all to ask: What if those soldiers had been sent home sooner? How many kids could have been spared suffering unspeakable violations that no child should ever have to endure, and that they will have to carry with them for the rest of their lives?

We have to do better by these victims. This means not only securing justice, but also ensuring they receive the care that they need and deserve in the aftermath of such crimes, both in the short-term and in the long-term. The Secretary-General has proposed a trust fund to support special services for victims, which would withhold payments from repatriated individuals and direct the funds to victims. We should move swiftly together to create this fund.

In closing, let me just share the story of one of those alleged victims, a 14-year-old girl who lives in Bambari, in the Central African Republic. She recently told a human rights organization that, in December 2015, she was walking along a path near a peacekeeper base when she was accosted by an armed soldier, whose uniform she recognized as the one worn by peacekeepers from the Democratic Republic of Congo. She said, “He slapped me in the face and made me continue to walk on the path…then he ripped off my clothes and used them to tie my hands behind my back. He threw me on the ground, placed his gun to the side and got on top of me to rape me. When he was done he just left. I had to put my clothes on and I went home.”

In 2005, the author of the Secretary-General’s first report on this problem, Prince Zeid – who, of course, is now the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights – warned the Council in this chamber, “Sexual exploitation and abuse would carry with it the most serious consequences for the future of peacekeeping if we were to prove ourselves incapable of solving this problem.” The same holds true to this day. And the profound consequences of failing to solve this – for peacekeeping missions, for the UN, and for so many individuals like that 14-year-old girl in Banbari – continue to add up. We knew how to fix the problem then. We know how to fix the problem now. We cannot wait any longer. The United States has tabled a Security Council resolution to take our responsibility addressing this grave issue. As an immediate step, we urge all Council members to support it. I thank you.

{Source: U.S. Department of State – United States Mission to the United Nations}

[photo credits-featured image: By Jeppestown [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons –  Street art in South Africa, warning against AIDS and abuse]

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