The UN has not been doing enough to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse by its peacekeepers and there is only so much the UN can do on its own to stop the problem. These are the two inescapable truths in tonight’s new documentary from FRONTLINE: UN Sex Abuse Scandal.
For years, the UN has been plagued by allegations of rape on the part of its peacekeepers, who are deployed to conflict zones all over the world.
Journalist Ramita Navai, who reported and co-produced the film, travels to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which has more alleged UN peacekeeper rape victims than any other country. There, she talks to Annie, who has survived unimaginable violence. When she was 13, Annie’s parents were murdered by rebels. Then the rebels gang raped her. When government soldiers arrived in her village, they also raped her. Finally, UN peacekeepers showed up. Annie met one from South Africa, who raped her and gave her a dollar.
“Annie, why did you think this soldier would be different?” Navai asks her.
“He was white,” Annie says.
She is one of over 2,000 young women and children who were allegedly sexually exploited and abused by UN peacekeepers since the early 1990s, Navai reports.
In the last decade, the UN has tried to curb the problem, investigating allegations, increasing training, stepping up oversight and trying to educate the public on how to report sexual violence. But the problem cannot be fixed until there is criminal accountability for the perpetrators, and there, the UN has zero control. Instead, it’s up to UN member states to hold their own soldiers accountable, and so far, countries have done very little to do so.
“The reality is today there is no guarantee of criminal accountability for someone who commits rape inside a UN peacekeeping mission, despite a lot of effort by a lot of people and a strong commitment by the top reaches of the UN,” says Anthony Banbury, who served as UN assistant secretary-general for field support.
When allegations of rape, like Annie’s, started to surface in the DRC in 2004, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan sent his adviser Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, to investigate.
Al-Hussein, who today serves as UN Human Rights High Commissioner, was shocked by what he found. He compares the sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers to a lifeguard jumping into a pool, and instead of saving someone in need, trying to drown them.
His 2005 report highlighted the lack of criminal accountability, but there was no widespread effort by member states to adopt his proposed measures.
If the member state does nothing or shields the individual, “then impunity exists,” al-Hussein says.
Didier Bourguet, the only civilian peacekeeper to have been jailed for sexual abuse while working abroad for the UN, appears to be the one exception to this overall culture of immunity.
Bourguet, who was working as a French senior logistics officer with the UN, was arrested in Goma in 2004 by Congolese police in a sting operation. They handed him over to French authorities, who charged him with the rape of at least 20 girls. In 2008, a French judge sentenced him to nine years in jail for the rapes of two girls, aged between 12 and 18.
In the film’s most stunning scene, Navai tracks down Bourguet, who is now out of prison and living in the south of France.
He admits to Navai that he had sex with 20 to 25 children while working for the UN, and says it was very easy to find victims: They were “starving” and the French soldiers had money.
“Did you know what you were doing was wrong?” Navai asks.
“Yes,” Bourguet says.
Navai also travels to the Central African Republic (CAR) and talks to victims there, trying to find out if their rapists were ever identified or held accountable. She meets Daniela, who says that in 2013, when she was 10 years old, two French soldiers raped her at a camp near the airport. Her family never reported it and so it went unrecorded by the UN. She also meets Alexi, a 15-year-old boy, who says he was sexually abused at the same camp.
The UN investigated similar allegations at the time, but then kept its findings buried within the system until an internal report was leaked to the media. In response, the UN secretary-general set up a panel to investigate the situation, resulting in a report that described “gross institutional failure.”
Eventually, French prosecutors launched a criminal investigation in 2015 into the rape of children in CAR, but four years later, they threw out the claims against four soldiers. That decision is being appealed.
After Banbury had to brief the press on new allegations of rape in CAR, he resigned in 2016. He explained the reasons for his leaving in a March 2016 op-ed in the New York Times, which outlined the many ways in which Banbury thought the UN was failing its mission. But the thing that most upset him was what he saw happen in the Central African Republic:
When we took over peacekeeping responsibilities from the African Union there in 2014, we had the choice of which troops to accept. Without appropriate debate, and for cynical political reasons, a decision was made to include soldiers from the Democratic Republic of Congo and from the Republic of Congo, despite reports of serious human rights violations by these soldiers. Since then, troops from these countries have engaged in a persistent pattern of rape and abuse of the people — often young girls — the United Nations was sent there to protect.
Navai’s own reporting is a testament to the lack of effort the UN has put into identifying and talking to victims of both recent rapes and ones that happened years ago.
“It took our Congolese producer a day to track quite a few of them down,” Navai tells the current acting head of UN Congo Mission about Bourguet’s victims. In CAR, Navai finds a new rape victim, a 17-year-old girl named Mauricette who says she was gang raped by UN peacekeepers from Mauritania.
No UN official that Navai speaks to pretends that the problem is under control or that the status quo is tolerable.
“It is an ongoing problem everywhere,” Jane Holl Lute, the UN’s special coordinator on improving its response to sexual exploitation and abuse, tells Navai. “We have to ask ourselves: Are we doing everything we can?”
For more on this topic, listen to Just Security‘s recent podcast with Shaheed Fatima QC on protecting children in armed conflict.
UN Photo/Ky Chung