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Africa and Aboriginal Tuesdays: The U.N.’s Heart of Darkness: Why Congress Must Investigate the Congo Scandal by Nile Gardiner, Ph.D., and Joseph Loconte

Living in the shadow of the Oil-for-Food controversy is another major United Nations scandal that may cause untold damage to the world body’s already declining reputation. U.N. peacekeepers and civilian officials from the U.N. Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo stand accused of major human rights violations. At least 150 allegations have been made against the Mission’s personnel. [1] The allegations involve rape and forced prostitution of women and young girls across the country, including inside a refugee camp in the town of Bunia, in northeastern Congo. The victims are defenseless refugees, many of them children, who have already been brutalized and terrorized by years of war and who looked to the U.N. for safety and protection. The U.S. Congress should act to ensure that the U.N. personnel involved are brought to justice and that such barbaric abuses are never repeated.

The United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC) employs about 11,500 peacekeepers from 15 countries, in addition to 650 civilian staff. The biggest peacekeeping contingents are from Uruguay, (1,778 soldiers), Pakistan (1,700), South Africa (1,387), Bangladesh (1,304), India (1,302), Nepal (1,225), and Morocco (801). [2] Established in 1999, MONUC is currently authorized by Security Council Resolution 1493. [3]

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has acknowledged that “acts of gross misconduct have taken place.” [4] A draft United Nations report has described sexual exploitation by U.N. personnel in the Congo as “significant, widespread and ongoing.” [5] In the words of William Lacy Swing, Annan’s special representative to the Congo, “We are shocked by it, we’re outraged, we’re sickened by it. Peacekeepers who have been sworn to assist those in need, particularly those who have been victims of sexual violence, instead have caused grievous harm.” [6]

This scandal raises serious questions about U.N. oversight of its peacekeeping operations and the culture of secrecy and lack of accountability that pervade the U.N. system. The fact that abuses of this scale are taking place under U.N. supervision is astonishing, and it is inconceivable that officials in New York were unaware of the magnitude of the problem at an early stage.

There are major doubts surrounding the effectiveness of the U.N.’s own internal investigation into the Congo scandal, conducted by the Office of Internal Oversight Services, headed by Under Secretary General Dileep Nair. [7] A confidential U.N. report obtained by The Washington Post revealed that “U.N. peacekeepers threatened U.N. investigators investigating allegations of sexual misconduct in Congo and sought to bribe witnesses to change incriminating testimony.” [8] According to the Post, the report also cites instances where peacekeepers from Morocco, Pakistan, and possibly Tunisia “were reported to have paid, or attempted to pay witnesses to change their testimony.”

The Congo abuse scandal is the latest in a string of scandals that have hit U.N. peacekeeping operations across the world. Indeed, it appears that U.N. peacekeeping missions may give rise to a predatory sexual culture, with refugees the victims of UN staff who demand sexual favors in exchange for food and U.N. troops who rape women at gunpoint. Allegations of sexual abuse or misconduct by U.N. personnel stretch back at least a decade, to operations in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea. Despite previous U.N. investigations, and Kofi Annan’s declaration of a policy of “zero tolerance” toward such conduct, little appears to have changed in the field. [9]

U.S. Funding of the Congo Operation

An issue of great concern to Congress should be the scale of U.S. funding for the Congo operation. U.N. peacekeeping operations paid for with U.S. public funds should be accountable to American taxpayers, who expect U.N. officials and peacekeepers to conduct themselves with honor and integrity.

The United States contributes 27 percent of the total worldwide U.N. peacekeeping budget and is the world’s largest contributor to MONUC, providing over a third of its operating budget of roughly $600 million.

The U.S. contribution to the U.N. peacekeeping mission in the Congo has been substantial. If 2005 figures are included, the U.S. will have contributed roughly three quarters of a billion dollars ($759 million) toward MONUC since 2000, according to State Department figures. The U.S. is expected to contribute $249 million toward MONUC in FY 2005, and $207 million in FY 2006. [10]

Questions for Congress

There are many key questions that arise from the scandal and which merit congressional scrutiny:

Why has the U.N. failed to effectively prevent abuse by its personnel given its tarnished record in previous peacekeeping operations?

Why did the U.N. take six months to release its own internal report on the Congo abuse scandal?

To what extent were the U.N. Secretary-General and other senior U.N. officials aware of the abuses by U.N. personnel in the Congo before media reports began to surface?

Can the U.N. be relied upon to objectively conduct its own investigations into allegations against its peacekeepers and civilian staff?

How can U.N. peacekeepers and civilian personnel accused of human rights abuses be prosecuted for their crimes?

What measures can be implemented to ensure that future U.N. peacekeeping operations are transparent, accountable, and run in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? What mechanisms should be put in place to ensure external oversight of U.N. operations?

What impact should the Congo scandal have on future U.S. contributions to the U.N. peacekeeping budget?

Key Recommendations

Congress should hold hearings into the Congo abuse scandal and request that U.N. officials provide testimony. The U.N. needs to demonstrate a commitment to transparency and accountability.

The scale of the scandal and the recurring nature of the problem demand serious scrutiny in both the House and the Senate. These should be major issues of concern for the newly created House International Relations Subcommittee on International Oversight and Investigations, as well as the Senate and House Committees on Appropriations, which provide 22 percent of the U.N.’s operating budget each year.

MONUC’s Chief of Mission, William Lacy Swing, should be asked to testify before Congress to explain the U.N. operation. In addition, Dileep Nair, the head of the U.N. Office of Internal Oversight Services, and Ruud Lubbers, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, should also give evidence on the U.N.’s failures in the Congo.

The United States government should pressure U.N. member states to prosecute their nationals accused of human rights violations while serving as U.N. peacekeepers.

The U.N. should lift diplomatic immunity for its staff accused of criminal acts in the Congo, opening the way for prosecution.

The Security Council should exclude countries whose peacekeepers have a history of human rights violations from future operations.

The U.N. should make publicly available all internal reports relating to the Congo scandal.

The U.N. should publicly name those countries whose peacekeepers have carried out abuses in the Congo.

Fully independent commissions of inquiry should handle future investigations into human rights abuses by U.N. personnel.

The U.N. should outline the exact steps it plans to take to prevent the sexual exploitation of refugees in both existing and future U.N. peacekeeping operations.

An external oversight body, completely independent of the U.N., should be established to act as a watchdog over U.N. operations, including humanitarian programs and peacekeeping operations.

Congress should withhold a percentage of the U.S. contribution to U.N. peacekeeping operations unless U.N. personnel responsible for criminal activity are brought to justice.

Holding the U.N. Accountable

The Congo episode has further undermined the credibility of the United Nations and raises serious questions regarding the U.N.’s leadership, especially that of Secretary-General Kofi Annan. The U.N. has consistently failed to prevent and punish the criminal behavior of its own personnel in trouble spots across the world.

The sexual abuse scandal in the Congo makes a mockery of the U.N.’s professed commitment to uphold basic human rights. U.N. peacekeepers and the civilian personnel who work with them should be symbols of the international community’s commitment to protecting the weak and innocent in times of war. The exploitation of some of the most vulnerable people in the world—refugees in a war-ravaged country—is a shameful episode, a betrayal of trust, that will haunt the United Nations for years to come.

The sexual abuses committed by U.N. personnel violate the institution's Convention on the Rights of the Child and Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, as well as the principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Congress must act to ensure that U.N. civilian staff and peacekeepers are brought to justice and that such barbaric abuses are never repeated elsewhere. So far, not a single member of the U.N. operation has been successfully prosecuted. The United States must take a stand and declare that it will not tolerate human rights abuses by U.N. personnel.

This article was published by The Heritage Foundation.

Nile Gardiner, Ph.D., is Fellow in Anglo-American Security Policy, and Joseph Loconte is the William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society at The Heritage Foundation. Heritage Foundation interns Scott Glabe, Jamie Zeppernick, and Nicole Collins assisted with research for this paper

Nile Gardiner and Joseph Loconte

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

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