28 Jul The Good, the Bad and the UNgly
Not a good week for U.N. peacekeepers. A confidential U.N. report described in this Washington Post story concludes that Pakistani peacekeepers in Congo have been helping steal that country’s gold. According to the U.N., the blue helmets only helped local plunderers, while Human Rights Watch says they were directly involved in the looting.
But that seems virtually harmless compared to what some of their colleagues have been up to. A battalion of 700 UN troops in the Ivory Coast have just been put under confinement and investigation for the sexually abusing girls.
The blue helmets have in recent years been amply involved in corruption, sexual abuse and worse. The Post article describes some if it, but there is much more. Two years ago, a U.N. report found large-scale sexual abuse by peacekeepers around the world, including rape and child molestation, and of course, promised reform. In Congo, the abuse was particularly pervasive. One would think after the rape scandal there, someone would have kept a closer eye on the peacekeepers to make sure they didn’t add robbery to their list of offenses.
And then there are the French soldiers in the Ivory Coast who suffocated a man to death with a plastic bag, were congratulated by their officers, and covered-up for by some senior generals.
What does it all mean?
There will always be some violence and depredation that accompanies occupying armies; it is a consequence of young men with power. It does not illegitimate the mission they are on. In a well-disciplined force the rate will be lower. When they troops are faced with an enemy they do not consider to be theirs, in defense of people they don’t care about, it may be worse. And their officers will often care more about their men than about strange foreign victims. It does not matter if it is the UN in the Ivory Coast or the U.S. in Iraq.
The question is whether the U.N.’s record is worse than would be reasonable for a force of its size. I think so, and there are many reasons for it. The obscure lines of accountability may make for a higher rate of abuse than one would normally expect. The peacekeepers’ coming from poor and undisciplined armies known for abusing human rights at home makes it unsurprising they they are not on their best behavior abroad. Julian has described a variety of legal obstacles to punishing peacekeepers. Usualy the worst that happens in sex crime case is they get sent back to their home country. Of course, if there were more serious punishments, it would be even harder to get good peacekeepers. Western nations pay for the lion’s share of the peacekeeping bill (27% from the US); the peacekeepers come from (usually) poor countries and go to other poor countries, and the U.N. itself is not a country at all. So who holds who responsible?
Part of the accountability problem may have to do with the positive associations people often have between the U.N. and human rights. The UN represents the world, has the international Human Rights Commission — how bad can it be? People may be more hesitant to criticize the UN because they see it as performing other important functions. When the first pictures were released from Abu Ghraib, America and human rights abuse became synonymous. That creates incentives to change. But despite what to me seems like truly pervasive sexual abuse, far more than one would expect from a force of 83,000, the U.N. has not become synonymous with human rights abuse, at least not in the minds of those who matter.
Finally, one must balance the harm of U.N. peacekeepers with the good they do, and this I think is the really damning point. In many places, from Srebrenica to Lebanon, the troops do nothing — can do nothing — but watch the peace get broken. Abu Ghraib invigorated the movement for a withdrawal from Iraq. How about a withdrawal from Liberia, Ivory Coast, Indonesia, Lebanon…