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Remarks to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Sexual Exploitation and Abuse by UN Peacekeepers

By Africa Regional Media Hub
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Ambassador Isobel Coleman

U.S. Representative to the UN for UN Management and Reform

U.S. Mission to the United Nations

Washington, DC

April 13, 2016

AS DELIVERED

Thank you Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member Cardin and distinguished members of the Committee for inviting me to testify today on the urgent, and shameful, issue of sexual exploitation and abuse by UN Peacekeepers.

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to travel with Ambassador Power to the Central African Republic to witness the peaceful handover of power to the country's newly-elected president. In many ways, the trip underscored both the best, and the very worst, of UN peacekeeping. The presence of UN peacekeepers has been crucial in stanching the ethnic violence that has wracked the Central African Republic, resulting in thousands of deaths and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people.

Yet as we all know, some MINUSCA troops have also been implicated in allegations of horrific sexual abuses, preying on the very people they have been sent to protect. During my time in CAR, Ambassador Power and I traveled to Bambari and visited with the families of some of the victims of that abuse. Their descriptions of the violence their loved ones have suffered at the hands of peacekeepers were powerful personal accounts that, for me, cut through all the statistics, the handwringing and frankly, the excuses about why this scourge has continued to happen.

Sexual exploitation and abuse by UN peacekeepers is not a new problem. It has plagued missions from Bosnia to Haiti, to the DRC to the Central African Republic. Let me read to you just one passage from an internal UN report documenting sexual abuse among peacekeepers: “Some young girls …. talked of “rape disguised as prostitution”, in which they said they were raped and given money or food afterwards to give the rape the appearance of a consensual transaction.”

These words, I'm sorry to say, are from the Zeid Report, published by the UN in 2005. We know from the scope of current allegations that now, more than a decade later, these very same offenses are still occurring. Despite years of UN leaders insisting on “zero tolerance,” a culture of impunity has been allowed to fester.

When Ambassador Power asked me last year to lead our mission's efforts in helping to establish a new paradigm for tackling this scourge, it was clear that an unacceptable lack of transparency and accountability were at the heart of the problem. Yes, the UN published an annual report tallying the numbers and types of sexual abuses by peacekeeping mission, but under pressure from the troop contributing countries themselves, it withheld the nationality of alleged perpetrators. That made it difficult for Member States to take collective action on tracking the status of investigations and the outcome of disciplinary action to hold perpetrators to account. In short, without transparency, real accountability was, at best, inconsistent. This, finally, is changing.

Last year, USUN led negotiations in the General Assembly for a breakthrough on transparency, gaining consensus among Member States to support the Secretary General in his intent to name countries in his annual report — a long-overdue step. As of early March, the UN now posts credible allegations on its website, along with the nationality of the alleged perpetrators. With this information, we are pursuing a comprehensive approach as outlined earlier by Ambassador Jacobson, to track individual cases and follow up with the appropriate authorities.

In March, USUN brought the issue of sexual abuse to the Security Council, which adopted Resolution 2272 — another significant step forward for accountability. The resolution endorses the Secretary General's decision to repatriate peacekeeping units that have demonstrated a pattern of abuse — which is a clear indication of insufficient command and control. Going further, Security Council Resolution 2272 empowers the Secretary General to repatriate all troops from a mission from a particular troop or police contributing country whose personnel are the subject of an allegation if that country has not taken appropriate steps to investigate allegations against its personnel, has not held perpetrators accountable or has not sufficiently informed the Secretary General of the progress of its investigations.

Our goal is to see Resolution 2272 implemented fully as a means of powerful prevention by ending once and for all the culture of impunity for sexual abuse in peacekeeping that has persisted for too long. Already, we are seeing positive signs of change, with the UN having repatriated military units from MINUSCA for sexual abuse.

The other part of this strategy, as also noted earlier, is to increase the overall supply of peacekeepers such that when military units or contingents are repatriated, others that are well trained and vetted are available to deploy quickly to take their place.

The UN has come a long way in responding to the scourge of sexual abuse, with strong support from the United States. It has built up its investigative capabilities, increased training and vetting of troops, implemented greater community outreach to increase awareness about sexual abuse, instituted penalties for offenders, and is improving victim's assistance. Clearly, given the shocking scale and gravity of the sexual abuse incidents being reported from CAR and other missions, these actions by themselves are not sufficient to address the crisis. The UN's recent commitments to greater transparency and accountability must result in a long-overdue sea change that ends impunity. Our work is not done. We continue to make it our highest priority both in New York and bilaterally to see perpetrators held to account and sorely lacking integrity restored to peacekeeping.