Monday, October 24, 2005

The UN's Abu Ghraib

The United Nations as an institution has been under attack in the last few years by the US far right for its refusal to lick President Bush's boots on the Iraq invasion. On that question, the UN tried, if unsuccessfully, to do exactly what it was founded to do: discourage unprovoked international aggression.

While all the sound and fury was directed at the UN's refusal to be subservient to the bullies in Washington, a REAL UN scanda wasl being overlooked. Early this year, six peacekeepers from Nepal and six more from Morocco working under the UN flag in the Democratic Republic of the Congo were widely accused of sexually exploiting girls in their 'protected' area... some were as young as 13. An internal UN investigation substantiated the allegations and found a pattern of sexual exploitation of women and children, which it said was continuing. Most despicably, many of the victims were usually given food or small sums of money in return for sex.

The UN has since overhauled its rules for peacekeepers acting under UN auspices. The UN mission in the DRC has since banned peacekeepers from having sexual relations with Congolese.

An editorial in The New York Times rightly condemns this outrage. Because The Times understands the structure of the UN, it also calls on member states to take this issue seriously.

(If you don't have a good grasp of the structure of the UN and how authority is divided within the organization and amongst its member states, I explain it thoroughly in this essay)

Though the UN is still widely respected outside the US, the peacekeeper sex scandal risks damaging its reputation as much as Abu Ghraib stained America's.

Sex scandals are quite frequent in places where there are large numbers of foreign troops. There have been a number of such scandals in Okinawa, where there is a huge US military base. Not surprisingly, Okinawans haven't appreciated the sex assaults any more than the Congolese.

One of the particular problems with UN missions is their structure. There is no standing UN army. Rather, each time the Security Council authorizes a mission, it depends on member states to volunteer troops for the mission. In reality, the scandal was not by soldiers of a UN army, but soldiers of the Moroccan and Nepalese armies working under the UN flag. This lack of a coherent command and control structure contributes to a lack of control over peacekeepers.

The richest member states with the most well trained armies rarely volunteer peacekeepers, so UN missions are left with soldiers from countries where they might not have a lot of money to put into rigorous military training. Some are from countries where the military is deliberated kept weak so it's not tempted to interfere in politics.

For example, in September 2005, France, the US and Britain had a combined 1300 soldiers in UN missions. Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Nepal, Jordan, Ghana, Uruguay, South Africa, Morocco, Senegal and Kenya EACH had more UN peacekeepers than the three powers put together.

The Nigerian army, for example, has a poor reputation for indiscipline and corruption but it's willing to donate troops to place where no one else is so they are chosen to fill the vacuum.

One possibility to address this problem would be to establish a standing UN force with proper training and a unified vision on what peacekeeping, rather than ad hoc missions with invited forces. But the UN charter prohibits this and the UN's fiercest critics would be the most deadset against such a change.

A UN panel recommended that soldiers working under the UN flag and accused of sex crimes should be tried in their home country. I'm not sure this is a good idea since the military justice system in some countries is not trustworthy. A better option would be for peacekeepers to be tried in the country they allegedly committed the crime in. If this is not practical, then they should be tried at the International Criminal Court.

UN peacekeeping is a lucrative enterprise for some countries since the UN pays them for their efforts. This is why so many developing countries donate troops: they can keep their militaries (who in some places are politically meddlesome) occupied, get the soldiers real-life training without starting a war and get nicely remunerated for their efforts. Countries whose soldiers repeatedly commit such crimes should be banned from serving in UN missions. A potential ban (and the resultant loss of a lot of revenue) might force an emphasis on improved military discipline in those armed forces.

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