There is a “cancer” within the United Nations—a term employed by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon himself—and it must be cut out. I don’t repeat this lightly, especially not as one of the organization’s chief advocates.
Despite Ban’s commitment to a “zero- tolerance policy against sexual exploitation” by the U.N.'s own personnel, a scourge of abuse continues, with recent reports detailing a new wave of nightmarish allegations against U.N. and French peacekeepers.
It’s maddening that a few bad cells threaten the system. On the whole, the U.N. is a healthy body, literally sustaining life around the globe through its work providing food, vaccines, shelter, and security to millions. And every day, peacekeepers are accomplishing remarkable feats, stabilizing countries on the brink of collapse, as in the Central African Republic (CAR), or sheltering civilians from rebel attacks in fragile states such as South Sudan.
Yet, when even one peacekeeper violates a civilian, it also violates the trust of the institution and the international community. If the U.N. is to extricate the bad actors—whether they hail from France or the developing world militaries that are backbone of U.N. peacekeeping—it must show that new policies will be implemented with unshakable resolve.
This month, the secretary-general took dramatic steps to “name and shame” the nations whose troops are accused of abuses. Additionally, he has suspended payments to troop-contributing countries wherever there is a credible allegation against one of its troops. These actions are necessary and the right thing to do.
The Security Council rightly backed up these efforts in adopting its first-ever resolution specifically aimed at sexual exploitation and abuse. The measure, which was championed by the U.S., endorses key parts of the secretary-general’s reform agenda, including his important decision to repatriate entire military or police contingents to their home countries when there is evidence of widespread or systemic abuse. Ejecting a country for its troops’ sexual abuse and exploitation has remarkably only happened once before – earlier this year in Central African Republic with troops from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
These new measures are crucial for the new policies to have lasting effect, but they will mean nothing unless they are actively and continually reinforced -- a posture which will anger some troop-contributing countries. Sending home offending contingents is not only a black eye on the global stage, but a loss in important revenue to that contributing nation. Frankly, that is as it should be.
Further, for those countries where there is evidence of widespread or systemic sexual exploitation and abuse, they should also be blocked from joining new missions. That is, the U.N. must say no on deployment until demonstrable progress is made. The secretary-general has the power to do that – he must wield it, and the Security Council must back him.
There are certain to be consequences. One year from now, for example, the Security Council may choose to intervene in a country facing crisis. With lives on the line, the international community will look to the U.N. to act quickly and, potentially, deploy peacekeepers. If similar to recent past crises like those in the Central African Republic and Mali, only a few countries will offer troops, and of those, some will have checkered human rights records. While there will be justifiable demands to deploy a robust force, the U.N. must hold firm and reject any nation with a record of widespread or systemic abuse.
At the same time, this does not mean that the international community should accept a weak response to conflict and mass atrocities. Rather, we must demand that more countries shoulder the load.
As it stands, there is not an abundance of well-trained troops for a growing number of increasingly complex, dangerous missions. Over the last 20 years, many Western nations have retreated from providing troops for U.N. combat operations. For example, last year, European Union governments provided some 6,000 troops to peacekeeping missions—about 6% of the more than 100,000 troops total—compared to 25,000 troops, or 40%, two decades ago. The U.S. provides even fewer: In 1996, 759 Americans served as uniformed personnel in U.N. missions; today, that number is 71.
The void caused by developed countries’ retreat from peacekeeping is largely being filled by developing countries, with the great majority serving honorably. That being said, they also often do not have the same level of training as troops and police from developed countries in North America and Europe. If peacekeeping is to ultimately free itself from the scourge of sexual abuse, the responsibility must not sit with the U.N. alone; other member states, especially those that can provide well-trained vetted troops who are prepared for hostile environments need to answer the bell.
To its credit, the U.S. took some decisive steps to improve this dynamic in chairing a U.N. peacekeeping summit last fall. The summit resulted in pledges of 40,000 more peacekeepers from a diverse pool of countries. Ensuring those pledges materialize and that troops deploy to places like the Central African Republic and Mali will be instrumental in backing up the U.N.’s denial of certain countries over their records on sexual abuse.
The trust of the world can only be as strong as the accountability we demand. In that pursuit, both the U.N. and its member states can and should do more.
Peter Yeo is president of the Better World Campaign, a group that works to strengthen the relationship between the United States and the United Nations.