Like the Church, the United Nations is beset by scandals and cover-ups

The Catholic Church is rightly excoriated for its past failure to properly protect children from sexual abuse by clergy. Its moral authority has been severely damaged by these scandals. The United Nations is another organisation that is often placed on a pedestal. When a UN committee accuses Ireland of a human rights violation, we take it very seriously but the UN, like the Catholic Church, has been beset by scandal, including child abuse scandals and cover-ups.

Even if not well known to the general public, the list of scandals is long. There is the Oil-for-Food Programme, for example.  UN missions have been accused of forcing refugees to live in highly contaminated areas in Kosovo. In Haiti, they have caused a cholera epidemic that killed almost 10,000 people. Adequate and available sanitation measures could have prevented the cholera outbreak. These are only some examples.

Most seriously of all, allegations of sexual abuse, including the abuse of children by UN peacekeeping personnel, stretch back for decades but new revelations continue to emerge. Last week a long report from the Associated Press and also updates from the Code Blue campaign highlighted that abuses are currently taking place and they are not properly addressed.

The Associated Press conducted an investigation of United Nations missions and found nearly 2,000 allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation by peacekeepers and personnel, more that 300 of which involved children. “The AP interviewed alleged victims, current and former U.N. officials and investigators and sought answers from 23 countries on the number of peacekeepers who faced such allegations and, what if anything, was done to investigate. With rare exceptions, few nations responded to repeated requests, while the names of those found guilty are kept confidential, making accountability impossible to determine. Without agreement for widespread reform and accountability from the U.N.’s member states, solutions remain elusive. Here in Haiti, at least 134 Sri Lankan peacekeepers exploited nine children in a sex ring from 2004 to 2007, according to an internal U.N. report obtained by the AP. In the wake of the report, 114 peacekeepers were sent home. None was ever imprisoned.”

Abusers were not prosecuted but simply moved somewhere else. Does it sound familiar? There are two main reasons for these systematic failings: UN staffs are covered by the equivalent of diplomatic immunity and UN peacekeeping troops only respond to their own countries. The UN has no legal jurisdiction over peacekeepers, even though it can at least try and ensure perpetrators are properly dealt with, something it often fails to do.

The Code Blue campaign was launched to address specifically sexual exploitation and abuse by UN peacekeeping personnel. They are advocating for a new, independent special court mechanism, so that on-site, impartial criminal investigation and trials ensure justice. The system currently in place “permits almost all criminal perpetrators within peacekeeping missions to escape prosecution.”

In 1946, just after the foundation of the UN, the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations set out specific privileges and immunities for the UN and its staff. At that time this provision made perfect sense as the UN had a workforce of approximately 300 and served primarily as a diplomatic organisation. But today it has 44,000 staff around the world, and the most of the are not working in diplomacy. The Code Blue campaign highlighted that “specific crimes are not mentioned in the Convention and no exceptions to immunity are specifically provided. The Convention was intended to ensure that states could not use false charges or spurious prosecutions against UN staff as political weapons. It was never intended to serve as a shield behind which even the most egregious crimes, such as sexual exploitation and abuse, may be committed.  Today, anyone covered under the Convention is immune from any “legal process”. This means that they can neither be prosecuted for a crime, nor required to cooperate with an investigation, hand over evidence or testify in court, unless that immunity is waived by the Secretary-General.“

Occasionally some employee exposes UN scandals but whistleblowers are often punished. A famous case is Anders Kompass, the UN human rights official who in 2014 denounced child-rape by troops in Central Africa Republic. He was then unjustly suspended and put under investigation for leaking confidential information but an independent external review ascertained that the UN response to his findings was seriously flawed. The Swedish official left the United Nations and commented: “Ethical standards within the UN will not improve until those responsible for misconduct, rather than the organisation, are personally made to suffer for their actions. …..   Human rights violations in the Democratic Republic of Congo, corruption and exploitation in Bosnia and Herzegovina, ongoing abuses by peacekeepers in a number of peace missions – the world only knows about them because someone broke the silence and leaked. This is quickly becoming a systemic response to the UN’s ethical failure. And yet the organisation reacts to these scandals by punishing those who try to hold an ethical stance, hiding the truth to the extent possible, and striving to tighten its control over information. Instead of creating a culture that welcomes whistleblowing as an opportunity to strengthen organisational values and standards, the UN promotes an atmosphere of fear and marginalises individuals seen as not toeing the line.”

These are considerations shared by many who have worked for the UN at different levels. For instance, Franz Baumann, who retired in 2015 as assistant secretary-general and special adviser on environment and peace operations, has produced a detailed analysis of the United Nations management, published on the Global Governance journal. He recounts some recent scandals as examples of systemic pathologies and comments: “Are the above examples atypical, isolated, random occurrences? More likely, they represent grave institutional flaws and are typical for an organization that is highly politicized, led indifferently, and managed poorly. Rhetoric trumps action and insufficient effort is made to comprehensively analyze risks, and put in place institutional frameworks that will prevent things from going off the rails.”

By rights, the public should know far more about these scandals, the UN should do far more about them, and UN committees should do more to ensure that their own house is put in order before they lecture other countries and organisations about their failings.