Emma Phillips was counsel to the Independent Panel on Sexual Exploitation and Abuse by International Peacekeeping Forces in the Central African Republic.
Two weeks ago, Barack Obama made his final visit to Canada as President of the United States. One of the central messages he chose to emphasize was the importance of peacekeeping and the potential for Canada to play a key leadership role in peacekeeping missions. Seemingly, the message did not fall on deaf ears; in March, on his first visit to the United Nations, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced his determination to "revitalize Canada's role in peacekeeping." More recently, officials from the Ministry of Defence have indicated that Canada is actively looking at participating in UN peacekeeping operations in Mali, the Central African Republic, and Colombia.
Canada's move to take on a more active role in international peacekeeping comes – perhaps not coincidentally – at a critical moment in which the very legitimacy and viability of peacekeeping has been called into question.
Last year, revelations that peacekeeping forces in the Central African Republic were implicated in numerous serious incidents of sexual violence against civilians – allegations ranging from rape to exchanging food rations for sex with homeless and orphaned children – raised questions as to why the UN has failed again and again to address sexual violence by peacekeepers in a meaningful way.
Even more seriously, the ugly revelations in the Central African Republic caused many to question how the international community can continue to countenance – never mind fund – the deployment of international armed troops who exploit and abuse the very people they were sent to protect. For Canada, which contributes about $320-million to UN peacekeeping operations annually, this is a very real question.
In response, the UN Secretary-General appointed an independent panel chaired by retired Canadian Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps to examine the alleged incidents in the Central African Republic and the UN's failure to respond. The panel's report revealed a system riven with problems. Legal contracts with troop-contributing countries give exclusive control to the soldiers' country of origin, which chooses whether or not to prosecute. A chronic shortage of troops too often results in the deployment of soldiers from countries with poor human rights records. More significantly, the panel found that the predominant institutional culture of the UN is one in which agencies and personnel habitually shirk responsibility for dealing with sexual crimes, and in which allegations of sexual violence by peacekeepers are passed from desk to desk, inbox to inbox, without response. Too often, investigations necessary to identify and prosecute perpetrators do not take place, and victims do not receive care or compensation.
In the wake of the report – and thanks to continued pressure from media and human rights organizations – hundreds of credible new allegations of sexual violence by peacekeepers in the Central African Republic have come to light. In March 2016, Anthony Banbury resigned from his UN position as assistant secretary-general for field support, citing the UN's responsibility for the brutalities in the Central African Republic as the final straw. In an open letter in the New York Times, Mr. Banbury drew a picture of a bureaucracy that chronically gets in the way of its human rights and peacekeeping mission. He called for a complete overhaul of the UN's personnel system, a reconsideration of budget allocations, and rigorous performance audits.
This is the peacekeeping infrastructure to which Canada may soon start devoting greater resources, both financial and human. Canada, of course, has a long history of peacekeeping and proudly claims prime minister Lester B. Pearson as the founder of international peacekeeping. It may be appropriate for Canada to take a leadership role in addressing the serious problems peacekeeping currently faces – particularly in the UN mission in the Central African Republic. Peacekeeping remains one of the most powerful tools the international community has for maintaining international peace and security, and protecting hundreds of millions of the most vulnerable people on Earth from violence, starvation, and, in some cases, genocide. But restoring international confidence in peacekeeping will not be an easy or uncomplicated task, and it is one we should take on with our eyes open.