A former number two at the US Department of Homeland Security is forcing the United Nations to confront one of the worst crises in its history: sexual abuse by peacekeepers.
Jane Holl Lute, who also served on the White House’s national security council, is pushing what she describes as a “get-tough agenda” to end a wave of allegations of child rape and sexual exploitation that has hit UN peacekeeping, in particular the UN mission in the Central African Republic.
“It is shocking,” she said in an interview on Tuesday.
“The things that we find ourselves speaking about in the halls of this house that have gone on in the field: it’s stunning.”
Lute was appointed in February as the UN’s special coordinator on improving the response to sexual abuse in peacekeeping, a position created after an independent panel found the world body had grossly mishandled the cases.
She has made fact-finding visits to the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo since then and met several times with troop-contributing countries and UN officials at all levels.
“We need to create an environment of intolerance for these kinds of actions,” she said.
Lute’s trip to Bangui and Kinshasa gave her a close-up look at the two missions with the highest incidence of sexual abuse by peacekeepers.
“There was a breakdown in command and control for those units,” she said of the many cases in the Central African Republic mission, known as MINUSCA.
There have been 29 allegations of sexual abuse reported already this year in MINUSCA, up from 22 in 2015, although most of those date back to previous years.
“We fully expect that we will uncover more cases,” Lute said, promising that any new incidents will “immediately get the senior-most attention” at the United Nations.
– Curfews and bed checks-
The shift in approach involves tightening rules for military and police units serving in missions to impose non-fraternization rules, curfews and enforcing bed checks.
Lute, who held several senior UN peacekeeping positions from 2003 to 2009, said she has come across “pockets of resistance” from some mission officials unwilling to take on the new responsibility of preventing sexual abuse.
To those who deny problems in their missions or organizations, she says, “Baloney. We all have to worry about it.”
Troop-contributing countries are under pressure to meet deadlines for completing investigations, setting up joint investigative teams with the United Nations and taking action to prosecute when allegations found are credible.
Some are responding.
South Africa announced it will set up courts-martial in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where at least seven soldiers face allegations of sexual abuse.
Egypt recently sentenced one of its soldiers convicted of sexual assault in the Central African Republic to five years in jail after a 29-day investigation the United Nations hailed as a record.
Norway has contributed $125,000 to a newly created trust fund to provide emergency assistance to victims, who are being urged to come forward and end their silence over abuse.
Sri Lanka has also made a one-time payment to a victim and her child to cover a paternity claim from a soldier who served in a UN mission in Haiti.
UN officials are currently considering proposals for mandatory DNA testing and withholding the wages of peacekeepers facing credible allegations of sex abuse.
“We have made a lot of progress,” Lute said. “We have more to do.”