Who Punishes the Crimes of the United Nations? ; EDITORIAL & OPINION

By Hensher, Philip | The Independent (London, England), January 9, 2007 | Go to article overview
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Who Punishes the Crimes of the United Nations? ; EDITORIAL & OPINION

Hensher, Philip, The Independent (London, England)

One of the most shocking facts about the alleged abuse, by United Nations soldiers, of children in southern Sudan is that the UN knew about it all along. The facts of the case were made public by a newspaper investigation which turned up a number of children claiming to have been abused. In fact, the practice of sexual abuse by UN soldiers has been well-known within the or-ganisation for some time.

In 2004, a UN report found that a "shockingly large number" of peacekeepers in the Congo had paid children for sex, sometimes with two eggs or $5. The victims included abandoned orphans, often illiterate. Three hundred and nineteen staff were quietly investigated, resulting in the summary dismissal of 18 civilians and the repatriation, on disciplinary grounds, of 17 police and 144 military personnel.

The cases in the Sudan may have come to our attention recently, but the UN has known there has been a problem for some time. The Assistant Secretary General, Jane Holl Lute, tried to pass off the allegations as old stories, saying the most recent cases in Sudan were based on those described in a 2005-2006 report by Unicef. There is clearly an enormous problem with accountability and transparency here. Jane Holl Lute has said there is a general failure with the UN's own systems, a "structural problem". These internal reports led to internal action which has only now been made public. The United Nations was in a very delicate situation; the regional situation in southern Sudan had been very bad for years, and the last thing anyone could have wanted was for the behaviour of UN troops to be called into question.

Nevertheless, the practice of keeping these allegations quiet, dealing with them in internal reports, seems less a matter of judgement than of the customary practice of the UN on most affairs. Any question of delicacy seems to be withheld from the public gaze, and the action of scrutiny very difficult to exercise. In this situation, it is hard to avoid the idea that the UN only acts decisively against its own failings when those failings become public - usually not through its own machinery. It would be interesting to know what serious action was taken by the UN before these allegations were published in newspapers.

Such appalling allegations were, it must be said, inevitably going to arise. Although the United Nations carefully recruits and scrutinises its civilian officials, and has a proper disciplinary procedure when they step out of line, there seems very little comparable scrutiny of its military personnel and police.

Recruitment and disciplinary procedures of military personnel and police are mostly left up to the contributing countries, and not generally exercised by the United Nations.

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