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U.S. official blasts UN over response to sexual abuse by peacekeepers

The United Nations headquarters building in New York on Aug. 15, 2014

Carlo Allegr/Reuter

A senior U.S. official is questioning why a Canadian police officer was given only a brief nine-day suspension for engaging in sexual exploitation while serving on a UN peacekeeping mission in impoverished Haiti.

The case has come under scrutiny because it is the only recorded case of a UN peacekeeper receiving punishment from his home country for sexual abuse or exploitation last year, despite allegations against at least 89 members of UN peacekeeping missions.

"He was suspended for nine whole days – nine days," said Samantha Power, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, during debate on Thursday at the UN Security Council over the escalating problem of sexual abuse and exploitation by peacekeepers.

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She cited the case as part of her scathing critique of the UN's failure to act against peacekeepers who engage in sexual abuse or exploitation. Although she did not mention the nationality of the police officer, a UN report made clear he was a Canadian serving in the UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti.

Other advocates were even more critical of the brief suspension. "Nine days is just laughable," said Paula Donovan, co-director of AIDS-Free World and its Code Blue campaign to end sexual abuse by peacekeepers.

"It's certainly not sufficient. It certainly doesn't send a clear signal to anyone who is thinking of breaking the rules."

The UN said the unnamed police officer returned to Canada, was investigated for 55 days, and was suspended for nine days by his home police service. His "exploitive relationship" in Haiti led to the birth of a child, the UN said.

A second Canadian police officer in the UN mission in Haiti is also accused of sexual exploitation, but his case is still under investigation. About 90 Canadian police officers are in the Haiti mission. They are strictly prohibited from sexual relationships with Haitians.

Despite its pledges of "zero tolerance" of sexual abuse, the UN faces criticism for a sharp increase in alleged abuse and exploitation cases last year. And the latest statistics, disclosed on a UN database, show that the allegations are continuing to increase this year. Peacekeepers were accused of sexually abusing or exploiting at least 31 women and children in the first two months of this year.

If the monthly numbers remain at their current level for the rest of this year, the sexual abuse allegations in 2016 would be far worse than any previous recorded year.

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"This is a global issue," UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the Security Council on Thursday. "In the face of this disturbing trend across a number of peacekeeping operations, it is imperative that our collective response is more effective."

The United States is calling for the first-ever Security Council resolution on the sexual-abuse issue, but it was unclear whether it would win full support. The proposal faced immediate opposition from Egypt, which complained that the issue shouldn't be used "as a tool to attack troop-contributing countries."

Ms. Power noted that the sexual-abuse issue has already been debated for more than a decade without much action. She recalled similar promises of action by the Security Council in 2005. "Despite the commitment made by this Council over a decade ago to address this problem, the scourge of sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeepers persists," she told the UN body.

Of the 69 allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation by UN peacekeepers last year, only 17 were fully investigated by the end of January, she said. (Some of the 69 allegations involved more than one perpetrator or victim.) And in only one of those cases – the Canadian case – did a country report that it had punished the perpetrator.

Ms. Power accused the UN of a lack of transparency in handling the abuse allegations. "We need to know whether those allegations are being adequately investigated," she said. "The victims and their communities … need to know that justice is being served. Yet the opaqueness of the existing system has made it virtually impossible for any of us to know these things."

Over the past 14 months, for example, the UN received 15 allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation by peacekeepers from the Democratic Republic of Congo who were serving in the Central African Republic, and most of the victims were children, but the Congolese contingent was not ordered home until late last month, Ms. Power said. "It should never have taken so long," she said.

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"How could we let that happen?" she asked. "This repatriation was delayed for operational reasons. That is unacceptable. The experience should force us all to ask: What if those soldiers had been sent home sooner? How many kids could have been spared suffering unspeakable violations that no child should ever have to endure, and that they will have to carry with them for the rest of their lives?"

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About the Author
Africa Bureau Chief

Geoffrey York is The Globe and Mail's Africa correspondent.He has been a foreign correspondent for the newspaper since 1994, including seven years as the Moscow Bureau Chief and seven years as the Beijing Bureau Chief.He is a veteran war correspondent who has covered war zones since 1992 in places such as Somalia, Sudan, Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan. More

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