UN Accountability, again

Eugene Kontorovich at Opinio Juris wrote about The Good, the Bad and the UNgly of UN peacekeeping.

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.

He accurately goes on about the perception of the force as being critical to their effectiveness.

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.

This point was missed by some of the responders.

There are two important issues here. One is the perception issue Kontorovich hits on. The other is the nature of the peacekeeping force itself and the accountability. The truth is, UN Peacekeeping forces are outside of the law.

In fact, the more painful truth is private military companies, the big bad mercenaries, are potentially more accountable than UN PKF at the very least because they are a) contracted by a state that is a signatory to IHL (UN is not, then it would be party to the conflict and taking sides PLUS it's not a state) and thus the state is potentially "liable", b) the state can chose to terminate the contract is worded and monitored correctly if the contracted firm does something untoward the reputation of the state, and c) the prior works because there are competitors will to step up, even if they are tapping into a similar pool of talent. In the case of the UN, they don't have (a), (b), or (c) going for them.

The Canadian expedition to Somalia for the UN in 1992-1993 provides another example on how the international community is powerless even when there are flagrant violations of IHL by IGO forces. From rules of engagement failures, the beating to death of a teenager in custody, and other actions did not warrant attention by the ICC or any other international regime. Only Canadian law could be applied and only at the behest of the Canadian government. A report by Canada’s Department of National Defense, which by its own admission was "curtailed" with "important questions remain[ing] unanswered", found significant failures in accountability and discipline among its forces deployed to Somalia.

There is a clear lack of UN and international oversight over PKO and, unfortunately, Kontovorich's examples are not as rare as people would hope or expect. Without a legal enforcement route, is it possible to bring these countries to the Security Council or in front of the media to coerce, proactively or reactively, adherence to international law? This is unlikely. The scrutiny of public attention and reprimands issues to major contributors would likely result in future withheld or delayed contributions.

The recurring sex crime scandals of PKO may merit a brief mention by Western media, usually floated as additional criticism of the UN, but they do not warrant sanctioning by the UN for the simple reason of supply and demand. A January 2005 CNN.com story on sex crimes by peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of Congo noted the extent of the UN’s authority: "The United Nations can punish its civilian staff, but military personnel fall under the jurisdiction of their own countries. All the organization can do is request a country to recall suspects and try and punish them at home." According to the same article, "allegations" have been made against soldiers from South Africa, Uruguay, Morocco, Pakistan, and Nepal. Meanwhile, each country enjoys about $1100/man/month for participating in a UN PKO. With the exception of Tunisia, these were and remain significant PKO contributors because the UN has few, if any, alternatives. Nepal, who regularly uses its military to suppress the human rights of its citizens, simply promises not to send overseas any of those violators. What choice does the UN have?

In October 2005, then-UN Secretary-General Annan reiterated the need to "improve conduct and discipline in United Nations operations" that operate with a significant degree of immunity. By the UN's own admission, the lack of judicial processes prevents those who commit criminal acts during their peacekeeping assignment from being held "criminally accountable in a manner consistent with due process of law."

If we're going to talk about the UNgly, let's really talk about the UNgly of it all.