Editor’s Note: Rosa Freedman is a senior lecturer at Birmingham Law School, University of Birmingham, in the UK. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Rosa Freedman: French peacekeepers accused of sex abuse in CAR. Peacekeepers are protected by UN immunity
She says this is unacceptable and makes U.N. complicit in preventing justice.
Earlier this month in New York, the advocacy group AIDS Free World launched a campaign to end impunity for personnel who commit sexual abuse during U.N. peacekeeping missions. The rape and abuse of women and children has affected an untold number of victims over the years, said Graca Machel, author of the study “The Impact of Armed Conflict on Children,” speaking at the launch of the campaign, called Code Blue.
U.N. peacekeepers, including troops, civilians and U.N. staff who commit these crimes can do so behind a cloak of immunity, knowing that they will not be held to account for their heinous actions.
Indeed, recently it was revealed that French troops on duty in the Central African Republic are alleged to have committed systematic rape and abuse on children at a displaced persons’ camp from December 2013 to June 2014.
While those troops were not in U.N. blue helmets, the United Nations has played a central role in their not yet being brought to justice.
The problem is not new. Over the last two decades, peacekeepers have been accused of abuses in Liberia, Congo, Bosnia and Haiti. Personnel have forced women and children to have sex in exchange for food, have trafficked women into U.N. missions and systematically raped them, and have committed other egregious acts of sexual violence. Few of those responsible have ever been brought to justice.
Despite media attention, internal U.N. reviews and repeated calls for action, little has changed on the ground. The reason is that laws protect perpetrators if they are working for or under the cover of the international body.
Based on the model of diplomatic immunity that protects heads of states and ambassadors from charges when abroad, the U.N. staff enjoy immunity as part of an international civil service. There are different rules for troops “bought in” by the United Nations, but generally no member of a peacekeeping mission may be prosecuted by the country in which they commit rape or sexual abuse.
This is appalling and no doubt has contributed to a culture of individuals committing sexual violence knowing that they will get away with it. And it is to this appalling situation that the Code Blue campaign is drawing attention.
The detail is simple: Laws that protect perpetrators must no longer be tolerated.
There are two types of personnel involved with peacekeeping missions and there are two legal regimes that govern them. Troops provided by U.N. member states have immunity from the jurisdiction of the country where the peacekeeping mission takes place, but their own countries can prosecute them for crimes committed on duty.
Such prosecutions are exceptionally rare, with most countries simply allowing soldiers to return home without any repercussions. U.N. staff, part of the international civil service, have immunity from the jurisdiction of courts in any country in the world, including their own nations. While the secretary-general can waive that immunity, in practice this does not happen.
As a result of those laws, prosecutions almost never take place and justice almost never occurs. Countries such as Pakistan simply allow their troops to return to society even when presented with evidence of their crimes.
And even when prosecutions do happen, as was the case with Uruguayan troops who systematically raped and abused a child in Haiti, punishment is less severe than in domestic cases. In that case, the troops served three months in their national prisons for the crime of “private violence.”
Code Blue calls for an end to this situation. Reforming the laws will be a start. Placing pressure on countries to prosecute their troops will also be a significant step forward. Creative proposals on hybrid courts and other international legal infrastructure might be required. But the starting point for all of us is to take ownership of the United Nations, which is funded by all of our governments.
We must begin by declaring that rape and sexual abuse of the most vulnerable people whom we send peacekeepers to protect will no longer be committed with impunity.