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Analysis: What the UN Could’ve Done to Protect Vulnerable Haitians Against Sexually Abusive Peacekeepers

An investigation by the AP revealed that 134 Sri Lankan peacekeepers sexually abused nine Haitian youths in a sex ring spanning three years. (Photo by Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images)

Following the overthrow of Haitian President Bertrand Aristide in February 2004, the United Nations deployed nearly 900 “peacekeepers” to the tiny island nation in hopes of stabilizing the area during a time of chaos, violence, covert international intervention and broken government.

Fast forward 13 years and those same peacekeepers, sent by the United Nations under the guise of protecting the world’s most vulnerable people, managed to do much more harm than good.

An investigation by the Associated Press, released Wednesday, April 12, uncovered disturbing details of a child sex ring run by Sri Lankan peacekeepers on the island for years, exploiting children as young as 12 for basic necessities like food, water and money.

At least 134 peacekeepers sexually abused nine children in the ring from 2004 to 2007, according to an internal UN report obtained by the AP. Only 114 of them were sent home; none were ever imprisoned for their crimes.

“I did not even have breasts,” a girl known as VO1 (Victim No. 1) told UN investigators. She said over the next three years, from age 12 to 15, she had sex with nearly 50 peacekeepers, including a “Commandant” who paid her 75 cents for her services.

Like VO1, dozens of Haitian women said they were raped by UN peacekeepers, while dozens of others attested to engaging in “survival sex” just to get by in a country where most people live on less than $2.50 a day, the AP investigation found. In a particularly gruesome case, a adolescent boy said he was gang-raped by a pack of Uruguayan peacekeepers in 2011, who captured the brutal assault on cellphone video.

The damning revelations are the latest in a laundry list of atrocities committed at the hands of so-called “peacekeepers.” The AP investigation of UN missions over the past 12 years unveiled close to 2,000 allegations of exploitation and rape by peacekeepers and other personnel all over the world. At least 300 of those allegations involved children.

“The UN seems to be implementing a policy in Haiti of hiding behind a shield of what they consider to be immunity from legal action,” said Nicole Phillips, a staff attorney with the Institute of Justice and Democracy in Haiti. “There are many, many things the UN could have done to prevent such violence, such trafficking and sexual exploitation and abuse, [but] it seems like they’re just hiding behind this shield of immunity.”

In 2015, accusations of sexual assault were levied against peacekeepers stationed in the Central African Republic. Similar incidents of child sexual abuse have been reported in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Libya and Sudan, among others, Bloomberg reported.

UN head honchos, including Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, had promised to implement new measures to address the issues of exploitation and sexual abuse by peacekeepers, but many of the reforms have yet to come to fruition.

“We believe we are advancing in the right direction, especially with the secretary-general’s new approach,” Atul Khare, who heads the UN department overseeing peacekeeper discipline and conduct, said in response to the AP investigation. “Improving the assistance provided to victims, who are at the heart of our response, is fundamental.”

It should be noted that the UN has no jurisdiction over peacekeepers, so all punishments, if any, are left up to the nations who supply them. That doesn’t excuse the UN from constantly dropping the ball when it comes to tackling cases of sexual assault that occur on its watch, however.

“In the issue of justice and reparations, accountability is key,” said Renzo Pomi, a representative for Amnesty International at the UN. “If you have a system in which impunity is pervasive, then it’s hard to believe that UN peacekeepers aren’t going to be inclined to do these things again. What I’m trying to say is, if you have cases of exploitation and abuse, and those dealing with the cases, meaning the judicial systems, actually investigate and prosecute those responsible, then I believe we would have less such occurrences.”

Pomi suggested a number of actions the UN could’ve taken to prevent these crimes from happening in the first place, like adopting a more-stringent vetting process for UN personnel, providing better training for said personnel who plan to serve in these foreign countries (pre-deployment and post-deployment) and, most importantly, an immediate response from the UN when reports of such sex crimes surface.

The first signs of trouble for Haiti came in 2010 when Nepalese peacekeepers were sent to the impoverished nation following a deadly 7.0 magnitude earthquake. Even more Haitians died as a result of a deadly cholera outbreak that same year, which UN leaders traced back to the Nepalese peacekeepers. A reported 10,000 Haitians lost their lives while another 700,000 remain severely affected since the outbreak seven years ago.

UN officials initially denied any involvement in the deadly outbreak and were accused of keeping life-saving remedies from afflicted locals. Today, the intergovernmental organization is still struggling to raise the $200 million promised to aid the families of victims affected by the infectious disease.

“These sex crimes, along with the cholera outbreak and the UN’s lack of accountability for [spreading the disease] have really discredited the United Nations and any good work they’re attempting to do in the country,” Phillips said.

The staff attorney went on to criticize the UN for its lack of a meaningful complaint mechanism for victims to report sex crimes and abuse. She urged that the organization provide more medical services to abuse victims for any injuries or ensuing pregnancies, as well as employ additional resources to track and compile data on such instances of sexual exploitation.

Much like the cholera outbreak, however, UN officials have remained relatively hush-hush about the child sex ring. The secretary-general’s office has not issued a statement on the matter since the AP report was released and didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Human rights advocates have contended that the UN should have blown the lid off the sex scandal themselves rather than force the media to dig it up. Action on the part of top-rank officials within the organization might’ve put pressure on national governments to try and prosecute peacekeepers for their crimes. Even better, it would have sent a clear message that sexual crimes of any nature won’t be condoned on the UN’s watch.

U.S. ambassadors have since demanded that all nations supplying soldiers for UN peacekeeping missions enforce their law and hold said soldiers accountable for sexual abuse and exploitative crimes, the AP reported Friday, April 14. Ambassador Nikki Haley warned that “countries that refuse to hold their soldiers accountable must recognize that this either stops or their troops will go home and their financial compensation will end.”

Haley’s ominous warning came the same day the Security Council voted unanimously to halt the UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti by mid-October.

“What do we say to these kids?” the U.S. ambassador asked, citing the AP’s investigation. “Did these peacekeepers keep them safe?”

Despite the rash of sex crimes against Haitian children, UN personnel still contend that the organization has contributed to the stability of the country. Locals, on the other hand, aren’t convinced, asserting that the peacekeepers ultimately made things worse.

“I’d like to see my attacker face to face and tell him how he has destroyed my life,” 21-year-old Melida Joseph, who was raped by one of the soldiers, told the AP. “They’ll look at this as one big joke.

“As far as the U.N. goes, they came here to protect us, but all they’ve brought is destruction.”

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