By Samuel Oakford
United Nations peacekeepers had “transactional sex” with more than 200 Haitian women, according to the organization’s watchdog, which is warning sexual exploitation at UN missions remains underreported.
A report by the UN’s Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS), first obtained by the Associated Press, contains findings based on interviews with 231 Haitians around a year ago who said they had “transactional sexual relationships with MINUSTAH personnel for various reasons.” MINUSTAH is the UN mission in Haiti, where it has been deployed since 2004.
Investigators went to Haiti to examine the persistence of UN sexual exploitation more than a decade after abuses by peacekeepers were first revealed in a landmark investigation known as the Zeid Report.
Women in rural areas cited “hunger, lack of shelter, baby care items, medication and household items,” as the “triggered need” that led them to engage in transactional relationships with peacekeepers. Women in urban and suburban areas, said the report, cited cash payments, “jewellery, ‘church’ shoes, dresses, fancy underwear, perfume, cell phones, radios, televisions, and in a few cases, laptops,” as items that were exchanged for sex.
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The OIOS report went on to look at all existing reports of sexual exploitation and abuse by UN staff. In total it counted 480 allegations of sexual exploitation or abuse by UN personnel from 2008 to 2013. A third of the allegations in 2013 involved non-consensual abuse, it said. Over the six year period it studied, OIOS found that “over one third involved a minor as a victim.”
The report, dated May 15, found there was “confusion and resistance” to the 2003 instructions that prohibited sexual exploitation and abuse by UN staff while discouraging all relations between personnel and locals in regions where peacekeepers are deployed.
“Sexual relationships between United Nations staff and beneficiaries of assistance, since they are based on inherently unequal power dynamics, undermine the credibility and integrity of the work of the United Nations and are strongly discouraged,” said the 2003 bulletin.
That UN personnel are having relationships — abusive, exploitative or not — with locals is not necessarily a surprise. A 2010 UN review found that in two missions “there was repeated debate with agency personnel at all levels about the boundaries of the bulletin, with individuals strongly challenging its prohibitions, and, in particular, that the use of the phrase ‘strongly discouraged’ allowed individual judgement to prevail.”
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“Staff with long mission experience stated there was a ‘general view that people should have romantic rights’ and raised the issue of sexuality as a human right,” said OIOS, adding, “this appears to remain an unresolved issue.”
Any reports of sexual interactions involving UN personnel and local residents are colored by a long history of rape allegations against peacekeepers in many countries, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Burundi, as well as Haiti.
OIOS found that in addition to Haiti, transactional relations were also common among peacekeepers deployed in Liberia. “Evidence from the two peacekeeping mission countries demonstrates that transactional sex is quite common but underreported in peacekeeping missions,” said the report. It added that condom distribution and the “number of personnel undergoing voluntary counseling and confidential testing for HIV” suggested that “sexual relationships between peacekeeping personnel and the local population may be routine.”
The UN has in recent months highlighted a decrease in allegations of sexual exploitation abuse against its personnel, which it said totalled 51 in 2014 compared to 66 in 2013. The OIOS investigation, which VICE News obtained, does not provide dates for when the Haitian women indicated their relations with troops took place, and it is unclear if any of the incidents overlapped with existing UN reporting. That appears unlikely however, given that among the people interviewed by the OIOS, only seven knew that UN policy prohibited sexual exploitation and abuse, and none of them were aware of MINUSTAH’s reporting procedures.
“The reality on the ground is that when a victim is exploited or abused by UN personnel, they have no access to remedies or justice,” Beatrice Lindstrom, a staff attorney at the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti, told VICE News. “The crux of the OIOS report is that the UN cannot be trusted to police itself.”
Lindstrom said the report was “unfolding within a broader culture of impunity,” at the UN, which had never admitted culpability for a cholera epidemic that Nepalese troops are believed to have been introduced in Haiti following its devastating earthquake in January 2010. More than 8,900 Haitians have died of cholera since October 2010.
The Department of Peacekeeping Operations and Field Support, which oversees the UN’s 125,000 deployed personnel, said it would not offer comment on the findings prior to its official publication, and pointed VICE News to a response it filed along with the May 15 version of the report.
In its response, DPKO called into questions several elements of the findings, including the methodology used in the survey carried out in Haiti. DPKO also questioned OIOS’s employment of HIV/AIDS tests as evidence, when, it said, “all staff members were encouraged to take a HIV test,” as part of a UN program that also distributed condoms. – Vice News
Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford
By Samuel Oakford