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Can the U.N. cure the 'cancer' in its system?

Can the U.N. cure the 'cancer' in its system?
U.N. peace keeping troops take part in a ceremony in the capital city of Bangui, Central African Republic (CAR) in 2014. In CAR, a dozen allegations of sexual misconduct have been received since the mission was established there in April of 2014. (Associated Press)

Since the United Nations established a peacekeeping force in the strife-torn Central African Republic last year, civilians in that country have lodged at least 13 complaints of sexual abuse against peacekeepers. Just last week, three U.N. soldiers were accused of raping two women and a child. Earlier in the month, a U.N. police officer was accused of raping a 12-year-old girl.

Sadly, such allegations are nothing new. The United Nations has been facing charges of rape and sexual assault by its peacekeepers for many years. In 2014 alone there were nearly 80 allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse committed by U.N. personnel around the world. There have been hundreds of other reports of peacekeepers trading sex with desperate women for money, food and access to basic supplies.

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U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon responded to last week's news by dismissing the head of the peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic and promising new efforts to combat sexual violence. He also briefed the Security Council behind closed doors and held a videoconference with the heads of all 16 active peacekeeping missions, after which he described sexual abuse by peacekeepers as "a cancer in our system."

But it's unlikely he will find a solution without making significant changes.

The U.N. enacted reforms after similar allegations arose in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2004, and reported incidents have dropped. But victims rights advocates say underreporting is still a problem, given the unsettled circumstances in which peacekeepers work. The U.N.'s Office of Internal Oversight Services reported in May that reforms were "hindered by a complex architecture, prolonged delays, unknown and varying outcomes, and severely deficient victim assistance." Human Rights Watch says that victims of abuse by peacekeepers have trouble figuring out how to lodge and track complaints, and that "as long as states that contribute peacekeeping troops remain largely unwilling to hold their soldiers to account, the sexual abuse crisis will continue."

Therein lies the core problem: With no military or police of its own, the U.N. relies on troops supplied by its member nations. If a soldier is accused of misconduct, the U.N. investigates, but it's up to the soldier's home country to pursue justice. The member countries are supposed to report the resolution to the U.N., but compliance is inconsistent. The Internal Oversight Services report also said that some member nations have sought to weaken enforcement, and that their investigations are viewed by mission commanders as "unreliable because of a perceived conflict of interest..."

There are plenty of political issues to navigate in the complicated undertaking of fielding international peacekeeping teams, but the safety and dignity of women and children must be paramount. It is appalling that soldiers deployed to protect civilians could become their tormentors. The U.N. needs to act much more forcefully and transparently, provide better support for the victims and ensure that commanders clearly communicate expected behaviors of their troops. And the nations supplying troops must ensure that allegations of misdeeds are investigated and that the guilty are punished.

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