The Blog

Law of the Jungle

The unpunished abuses of UN peackeepers.

12:00 AM, Apr 30, 2008 • By NILE GARDINER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

IT IS HARD TO BELIEVE the United Nations' reputation as an international peacekeeping organization could sink any lower, but it just has. The BBC's flagship investigative news program, Panorama, revealed this week that the UN's biggest peacekeeping mission, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), has been blighted by yet another scandal. The 18-month BBC study into the conduct of the 17,000 strong, $1.1 billion a year operation (known as MONUC) found that UN troops have been involved in arming militia groups and smuggling gold and ivory. This revelation comes just three years after it emerged that UN peacekeepers had perpetrated the widespread abuse of refugees in the war-torn country.

The allegations are hugely embarrassing for the United Nations, and involve peacekeeping contingents from two of the UN's biggest contributing nations. According to the BBC investigation, Indian peacekeepers (who make up a quarter of the MONUC mission) "had direct dealings with the militia responsible for the Rwandan genocide" in eastern Congo. The BBC states that "the Indians traded gold, bought drugs from the militias and flew a UN helicopter into the Virunga National park, where they exchanged ammunition for ivory." The BBC also reports that Pakistani peacekeepers, the second largest group in MONUC, "were involved in the illegal trade in gold with the FNI militia, providing them with weapons to guard the perimeter of the mines" in the eastern town of Mongbwalu.

The BBC's claims are extremely damaging to the reputation of the UN Mission to the Congo as a neutral force, underscoring that some UN peacekeepers are directly profiting from and even fueling the continuing violence and human misery that has claimed millions of lives in the country since the 1990s. Despite its vast mineral wealth, the DRC is one of the poorest countries on Earth, with an average 45,000 people a month dying from disease and starvation.

True to form, the United Nations is officially adopting a see-no-evil, hear-no-evil approach towards the BBC's revelations, and points to an internal UN inquiry into the actions of Pakistani soldiers which found that there was an "absence of corroborative evidence" to establish they were involved in supplying weapons or ammunition. The UN's arrogant stance smacks of yet another cover-up in the upper echelons of power in Turtle Bay, and cries out for a major external investigation. Senior UN officials are careful not to alienate two major United Nations members who provide large numbers of soldiers for UN missions (and gain financially from doing so).

The UN's stance on the latest Congo scandal is similar to the one it adopted in 2004 when allegations of sexual abuse first appeared against MONUC in the British press. It was not until global media pressure mounted that the UN publicly acknowledged the scale of the problem late in the year, when then Secretary General Kofi Annan accepted that "acts of gross misconduct" had been committed by UN personnel. Journalists documented hundreds of cases of rape and forced prostitution of women and young girls across the Congo, including inside a refugee camp in the northeastern town of Bunia. The refugees were victims of predatory UN peacekeepers and civilian personnel from an array of countries, including France, Pakistan, Nepal, Morocco, Tunisia, Uruguay, South Africa and Tunisia. In the words of William Lacy Swing, the chief UN official on the ground at the time, "peacekeepers who have been sworn to assist those in need, particularly those who have been victims of sexual violence, instead have caused grievous harm."

The horrific UN crimes in the Congo continued a pattern that had run through nearly all major UN peacekeeping operations, going back more than a decade, from Sierra Leone and Liberia to Kosovo and Guinea. The Congo scandal was followed by widespread evidence of rape in the city of Juba by members of the UN Mission in the Sudan (UNMIS) in early 2007, when the London Daily Telegraph reported that possibly hundreds of young refugees in southern Sudan may have been abused by UN peacekeepers. More recently, in December 2007, the Los Angeles Times reported that 114 Sri Lankan troops had been expelled from the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti accused of sexual exploitation.

Unfortunately, even when peacekeeping troops are deported to their home countries, they very rarely face trial. A UN Department of Peacekeeping investigation of 319 personnel across 16 peacekeeping missions between 2004 and 2006 (likely just the tip of the iceberg) resulted in 179 repatriations but no prosecutions.