By Thalif Deen
The United Nations is fighting a losing battle against the widespread – and continued – sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) by UN peacekeepers and civilian staff resulting in relatively few convictions amidst daunting problems in tracking abusers and nailing down paternity claims.
But a proposal for a UN-supervised DNA data base – a law enforcement tool used successfully in many countries—has failed to get off the ground, even as the UN launches “16 Days of Activism” aimed at eliminating violence against women.
Anne Marie Goetz, Clinical Professor, Center for Global Affairs School of Professional Studies at New York University, told IPS there are a number of practical measures that can be taken to reduce cases of SEA, such as deploying more women peacekeepers, improved training and awareness-building, and better means for victims to report abuses.
“But a potentially effective deterrent measure that has not been much discussed is the idea of pre-deployment collection of DNA samples from uniformed and civilian peacekeepers”.
She said a simple mouth swab should be adequate to produce DNA material that can be matched against evidence in a rape case, or against the DNA of a baby in paternity cases.
The very act of collecting this sample should raise awareness about elevated probabilities of being caught in cases of sexual violence, or matched in paternity suits.
“Troop-contributing countries could also use this as an opportunity to explain to their peacekeepers that they will be liable for prosecution in cases of violence or abuse, and will be liable for child maintenance costs in paternity cases,” said Professor Goetz, a former chief advisor on Peace and Security at UN Women, the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and Empowerment of Women.
But the proposal for a DNA data base has triggered opposition, both from staffers, and particularly member states, who provide troops for UN peacekeeping operations. The objection is largely on grounds of privacy protection.
Paula Donovan, the Co-Director of AIDS-Free World and its Code Blue campaign, told IPS that “Code Blue’s research leads us to conclude that Member States are unlikely to endorse a database of DNA samples from all military personnel deployed as UN peacekeepers, because the proposal contradicts most countries’ privacy laws and norms.”
She pointed out that most allegations of UN sexual exploitation and abuse are made against civilian personnel, so the Organization could lead the way by making the provision of DNA samples a condition of employment.
However, the UN Organization has an inherent bias in all criminal proceedings and paternity claims involving its own personnel, so the database would have to be created and controlled by an independent third party, she added.
“And even then, DNA evidence is a tool, not a solution: establishing a UN staff member’s paternity, for instance, is useless for a claimant until a court issues a child support order, and the UN enforces it,” said Donovan, a longstanding and relentless activist against sexual exploitation in the UN system.
Asked about the proposal to hold back funds in escrow, in cases of sexual abuse, she said former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon proposed, back in March 2016, that accused peacekeepers’ withheld pay should be transferred to a trust fund when claims are substantiated against them.
“But the key problems remain unaddressed”, said Donovan.
Firstly, she said, there is “conflict of interest: Substantiated by whom – the UN Organization, whose own personnel are the accused?”
Secondly, “double standards: Why only soldiers, when most UN personnel accused of sexual exploitation and abuse are civilian staff and experts on mission,?” she asked.
Thirdly, she said, “there was no substitute for justice: Monies from the trust fund, including wages garnished (only while the accused are still UN personnel), don’t go to the individual victims, but are disbursed to organizations that work with all victims of sex abuse.”
Some individual victims might happen to receive some of that assistance, but in no case is access to victims’ services a replacement for criminal justice or civil court orders, Donovan declared.
Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), which stores biological information, is described as a molecule that carries the genetic instructions used in the growth, development, functioning and reproduction of all known living organisms and many viruses.
According to a BBC report, Britain pioneered the use of DNA as a crime-fighting tool, introducing the world’s first national database in 1985. Currently, it holds the profiles of more than five million people and is credited with helping solve some 40,000 crimes a year.
The US, Canada, Australia and most European countries have followed the UK’s lead, with DNA profiling internationally regarded as the most important breakthrough in modern policing. Until now, though, there has been little scientific research on whether such databases really do reduce offending, according to the report.
Professor Goetz of New York University told IPS “sexual exploitation and abuse by uniformed and civilian peacekeepers has probably been going on for longer than we know, but there has always been a great reluctance to admit it and address it, in part because of exaggerated anxieties that troop-contributing countries would withdraw badly-needed troops and civilian contributions.”
She said this assumption has never been actually tested. It could well be that, faced with SEA cases and a suspension of troop deployment until cases were resolved, a number of troop contributors would act with a great deal more alacrity to prosecute perpetrators in their ranks, she noted.
Ian Richards, President of the Coordinating Committee of International Staff Unions and Associations of the UN System (CCISUA), told IPS: “When UN staff sign up to work for the UN, they shouldn’t have to sign over their DNA. This proposal would presume that all UN staff are potential sex abusers.”
No employer or country, he said, asks its employees or citizens to hand over their DNA, and there are good reasons for that, including the right to privacy and to protect against misuse of personal information.
For example, the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), a UN agency based in Geneva, was recently accused of trying to obtain staff members’ DNA in order to identify a whistleblower.
“We don’t want this to happen at the UN. And there is a strong likelihood that any UN DNA database could be easily hacked by outside parties, leading to other complications,” said Richards, whose Union represents over 60,000 staffers, both in the field and at UN headquarters in New York.
Providing an update on cases of sexual exploitation and abuse, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters November 3 that for the period of 1 July to 30 September, the UN has received 31 allegations. “Not all of them have been verified, and some are in the preliminary assessment phase,” he added.
Of the 31 allegations, 12 are from peacekeeping operations and 19 from agencies, funds and programmes: 10 are categorized as sexual abuse, 19 as sexual exploitation, and two are of an unknown nature.
He said that 12 of these allegations occurred in 2017, two in 2016, six in 2015 or prior, and the date(s) are unknown for 11 of them.
Meanwhile, Dujarric said: “We have continued our efforts to implement the Secretary-General’s strategy to combat sexual exploitation and abuse.”
Victims’ Rights Advocates have been appointed at Headquarters and in four field missions, and Assistant Secretary-General Jane Connors has returned from the Central African Republic, where the peacekeeping mission is under scrutiny.
“We are also piloting a Victims Assistance Protocol which sets the roles and responsibilities of those on the ground to ensure coordination to provide victims with immediate assistance.”
And with the most recent voluntary contributions from Member States, the UN Trust Fund in support of victims of sexual exploitation and abuse will rise to $1.5 million.
The Secretary-General has also instructed the heads of all entities system-wide to provide action plans and risk analyses to commit the leadership to the fight against sexual exploitation and abuse and almost all have been received.
“With regards to our efforts to end impunity, we are developing an electronic tool for screening UN staff dismissed as a result of substantiated allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse, or who resigned or were dismissed during an investigation.”
“We have also launched mandatory training for all UN personnel prior to deployment. This month we are piloting in the Democratic Republic of the Congo a single and uniform ‘Incident Report Form’ to ensure assistance is provided immediately, appropriate investigative action is undertaken, and to improve our data collection.”
Dujarric said: “We also continue our efforts to engage with Member States. So far, 58 Heads of State/Government have joined the Secretary-General’s Circle of Leadership. 74 Member States have signed the Voluntary Compact and 18 more have formally indicated their intention to sign it.”
Meanwhile, a meeting on UN peacekeeping, held in Vancouver, Canada, in mid- November, condemned in the “strongest terms sexual exploitation and abuse committed by UN peacekeepers and staff, and called on Member States and the UN Secretariat to redouble efforts on prevention, accountability, and victim assistance.”
“We appreciate the Secretary-General’s latest efforts to establish a high-level Circle of Leadership and to develop voluntary compacts with Member States on the elimination of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse, which we encourage all Members to pursue with the UN and implement fully,” the declaration read.
“We welcome the UN’s recent adoption of a victim-centered approach, including the appointment of the Victim’s Advocate, and in this regard, will strive to clearly identify policies and adequate standards to assist the victims of such heinous acts,” it added.
The writer can be contacted at [email protected]
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