The new United Nations chief is looking to heal a major black eye for peacekeeping operations as the international organization faces threats of major cuts in US funding.
On Thursday, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres unveiled recommendations from a task force trying to stamp out sexual abuse by peacekeepers in the field. But it remains to be seen if the recommendations will be implemented, let alone prove effective.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration has indicated it’s looking to cut its contributions for foreign commitments, such as the UN. Any budget cuts would need support from Congress, however, and a potential executive order on UN funding has not yet materialized.
Right now the US pays for about 30% of the UN’s nearly $8 billion peacekeeping budget. UN diplomats and observers believe the peacekeeping department — with its notorious sex abuse cases and unending, expensive and far-flung missions — will be an easy target for US slashing.
At her Senate confirmation hearings, US Ambassador Nikki Haley said, “If you look at the peace missions in Africa, it’s been devastating to see the sexual exploitation, the fraud, the abuse that’s happening.”
Guterres acknowledged Thursday that, “We need a new approach,” noting that the UN has grappled for many years with the “scourge of sexual exploitation and abuse.”
The UN leader acknowledged that he doesn’t have a “magic wand to wave” to solve the problem. Instead, the UN panel proposed having more investigators to look into abuse allegations and better screening of job candidates to see if there are previous allegations against them.
A major challenge the UN faces in ending the cases of abuse is that it can’t prosecute allegations against peacekeepers by the citizens they are supposed to protect. Instead, the member country that dispatched the peacekeeper under suspicion is responsible for trying the accused — and often doesn’t.
The pay of accused troops is already docked from payments made by the UN to the troops’ contributing nations and then disbursed if they are exonerated.
But the anti-AIDS group Code Blue blasted the report for saying its promise to break new ground on holding perpetrators accountable “crumbles under close inspection.” Accused peacekeepers can’t face jail time, just perhaps demotions or dismissal, the group said.
In addition, the UN continues to ignore the conflict of interest of dealing with criminal accusations against its own personnel, the group said.
The UN task force also made recommendations for the peacekeepers themselves, including a ban on alcohol use, and peacekeepers signing a statement acknowledging awareness of the UN policy against sexual abuse and exploitation.
The recommendations are also packed with warnings for field supervisors. One reads: “Leaders and managers should not engage in sexual relations with their subordinates.”
In 2016, there were 80 allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse by uniformed personnel and 65 allegations against civilian workers who support the peacekeeping missions, according to Guterres’ report.
There were 311 known victims — all but two of them women and girls — but the report noted that there may well be more. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, Haiti and the Central African Republic were the peacekeeping missions with the highest rates of alleged abuse.
The report assessed that more victims could be ready to come forward to report allegations of abuse by UN personnel because of the UN’s greater outreach to encourage victims to report incidents. But the report cautioned, “We feel that all the cases are not reported.”
Amnesty International praised the secretary-general’s effort to “institute a broad range of reforms to better address this scourge.”
But the group emphasized, “We are concerned that there is still insufficient pressure on member states to ensure that incidents of sexual abuse are fairly investigated and prosecuted.”