Philip Hensher: Who punishes the crimes of the United Nations?

Any question of delicacy seems to be withheld from the public gaze, and scrutiny difficult to exercise
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One of the most shocking facts about the alleged abuse, by United Nations soldiers, of children in southern Sudan is that the UN knew about it all along. The facts of the case were made public by a newspaper investigation which turned up a number of children claiming to have been abused. In fact, the practice of sexual abuse by UN soldiers has been well-known within the organisation for some time.

In 2004, a UN report found that a "shockingly large number" of peacekeepers in the Congo had paid children for sex, sometimes with two eggs or $5. The victims included abandoned orphans, often illiterate. Three hundred and nineteen staff were quietly investigated, resulting in the summary dismissal of 18 civilians and the repatriation, on disciplinary grounds, of 17 police and 144 military personnel.

The cases in the Sudan may have come to our attention recently, but the UN has known there has been a problem for some time. The Assistant Secretary General, Jane Holl Lute, tried to pass off the allegations as old stories, saying the most recent cases in Sudan were based on those described in a 2005-2006 report by Unicef.

There is clearly an enormous problem with accountability and transparency here. Jane Holl Lute has said there is a general failure with the UN's own systems, a "structural problem". These internal reports led to internal action which has only now been made public. The United Nations was in a very delicate situation; the regional situation in southern Sudan had been very bad for years, and the last thing anyone could have wanted was for the behaviour of UN troops to be called into question.

Nevertheless, the practice of keeping these allegations quiet, dealing with them in internal reports, seems less a matter of judgement than of the customary practice of the UN on most affairs. Any question of delicacy seems to be withheld from the public gaze, and the action of scrutiny very difficult to exercise.

In this situation, it is hard to avoid the idea that the UN only acts decisively against its own failings when those failings become public - usually not through its own machinery. It would be interesting to know what serious action was taken by the UN before these allegations were published in newspapers.

Such appalling allegations were, it must be said, inevitably going to arise. Although the United Nations carefully recruits and scrutinises its civilian officials, and has a proper disciplinary procedure when they step out of line, there seems very little comparable scrutiny of its military personnel and police.

Recruitment and disciplinary procedures of military personnel and police are mostly left up to the contributing countries, and not generally exercised by the United Nations. If a UN soldier has been committing the grossest crimes, all the UN can do is to dismiss him and repatriate him. These military personnel are more or less volunteered for the job en bloc by contributing countries, and the suitability or otherwise of individual soldiers or policemen goes without being questioned.

The UN, too, does not as a matter of policy consider the human rights records or practice of the countries which contribute military personnel to the missions. Some of the soldiers in the missions come from countries with a long-standing, structural commitment to good human rights practices; most do not. The cursory training in human rights practice - I believe, in Sudan, it constitutes a 45-minute lecture, in a language possibly not well understood - hardly scratches the surface of some soldiers' ongoing commitment to buying the sexual favours of eight-year-olds.

The UN cannot punish its own wrong-doers itself, nor does it seem to have any effective mechanism for ensuring that the worst wrong-doers, once sacked and repatriated, meet with any kind of national punishment. The solution seems extreme, but more or less unavoidable. If the UN wants to have proper control over the behaviour of the troops acting in its name, it is going to have to have its own deployment force. In its civilian branches, the staff don't represent their national governments; it seems obvious that there is no good argument for the national badge on the sleeve of UN troops.

Jane Holl Lute told us that 17 police and 144 military personnel were repatriated after the cases in the Congo. Could she tell us what, subsequently, happened to those 161 people? I very much doubt she actually knows. Could she tell us how many people were repatriated after these current allegations in the Sudan, and whether any repatriations occurred before the allegations were made public? Perhaps cynically, I don't think the numbers are anywhere near as high.

What needs to happen, above all, is a much greater spirit of openness within the United Nations. It seems to conduct itself as an entirely enclosed bureaucracy, hardly open to democratic scrutiny.

Revelations of its fundamental errors always tend to come out through external means, and not through any systematic self-examination to which interested observers can contribute, and which we can all examine. They are operating in dangerous arenas, and their desire not to be disturbed is perhaps understandable. But their present systems will inevitably lead to the sort of corrupt and criminal practices which we are now beginning to glimpse. It seems incredible that their structure may mean such events occur with impunity.