UN Peacekeepers in Haiti Force Girls to Trade Sex for Food, Medicine
IJDH executive director Brian Concannon and Code Blue co-founder Paula Donovan discuss the lack of accountability within the UN and the reforms needed for victims seeking justice
JESSICA DESVARIEUX, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.
A report conducted by the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services reveals that since 2004 UN peacekeepers in Haiti sexually abused more than 225 women and girls in exchange for food and medicine. But now that we know it happened and is potentially still happening, what is the UN going to do about it, and will these victims ever see justice?
Now joining us to get into all o f this are our two guests, both joining us from Boston. We have Brian Concannon. He is the executive director and founder of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti. And also joining us is Paula Donovan. She’s the co-founder and co-director of Code Blue, a campaign to end sexual exploitation and abuse by UN peacekeeping personnel.
Thank you both for joining us.
PAULA DONOVAN, CO-DIRECTOR, AIDS-FREE WORLD: Thank you.
BRIAN CONCANNON, EXEC. DIRECTOR, INSTITUTE FOR JUSTICE AND DEMOCRACY IN HAITI: Thank you, Jessica. It’s good to be with you.
DESVARIEUX: Good to have you guys both on. So Paula, let’s start off with you. First, describe for our viewers what kind of details are emerging from this report? How did these transactional relations take place in Haiti?
DONOVAN: It seems as though this is a draft report, and so the UN hasn’t quite finished tooling around with it. But it’s a report about a survey that was conducted among 231 Haitian women, or 229 Haitian women, two men. And they were asked whether they had–sorry, they had all had transactional sex with UN peacekeepers in exchange for food and other favors, or basically entitlements.
DESVARIEUX: So Brian, you’re an attorney with experience working for the UN. What accountability structures does the UN have in place for cases like this one? Does the UN reprimand these peacekeepers? And more importantly, what current structures exist for these sexually abused women and girls to find justice?
CONCANNON: Sure. In terms of punishing the perpetrators, sometimes they’re sent home. It’s rare, but sometimes they’re sent home. And even rarely in the most egregious cases they are slapped on the wrist. One example is a couple years ago, there was rape of an underaged girl and the perpetrators were sentenced to two years.
In terms of mechanisms for the victims themselves, there really is nothing practical. On paper there’s a system where people can file complaints, but it is really designed to keep people from effectively filing complaints. I don’t know of a single case where a sexual abuse victim has been able to get any justice by following the UN’s procedures. And in many other cases, for example we’re working on a claim of victims of the cholera that the UN brought to Haiti. The UN just refuses to take those claims even though they’re filed consistently with their own system.
DESVARIEUX: Paula, you heard Brian kind of describe this system as not being practical. You’ve documented these UN peacekeeper abuses throughout the world. Does this story–this story in Haiti is clearly not an isolated case. What has been your experience in dealing with the UN, and what is their response when you bring sort of these type of allegations to them?
DONOVAN: In general, Jessica, what the UN says is that things are getting better. That sexual exploitation and abuse is a problem all over the world, but they’re training peacekeepers, and they’re making sure that the governments who send the peacekeepers are aware of their obligation to investigate and prosecute any allegations. And as Brian was saying, then things basically fall apart.
People don’t feel safe coming forward and reporting abuse, sexual abuse. They don’t really know what’s allowed and what isn’t within the UN system. And because they don’t ever see justice really come to fruition, word gets around very quickly that it doesn’t make any sense to report if you’re raped, if you’re coerced into providing sex in exchange for basic needs like food and water. People just feel as though there’s no sense in reporting because nothing ever happens to the perpetrators, and you would be known as someone who had reported. So your life is in imminent danger.
DESVARIEUX: What do you both see as the solution here? Brian, I want to start off with you. How do we guarantee that these type of actions don’t result in impunity for the perpetrator?
CONCANNON: It’s actually easy. And it’s the same way you guarantee on defective products, on police brutality, is you give the victims an opportunity to make a claim for justice. And that’s why it is so important that the UN continues to refuse to provide a mechanism for victims to get justice. There’s been reports and policy recommendations and education for the last 20 years, and it hasn’t made a dent in the problem precisely because the UN continues to refuse to give victims an adequate way of processing their claims. And until that happens you’re not going to have any serious improvement in the problem.
DESVARIEUX: Get into some specifics though. When you say processing their claims, what are we talking about? What do you want set up?
CONCANNON: Well, there should be some way of, certainly of filing paternity claims so that people’s salaries are docked when they are fathering kids. There should be ways of people who are victims of sexual assault to actually get some of the paycheck in return as compensation for their injuries. And until the victims are able themselves to make these claims, nothing’s really going to happen. We’ve seen over and over again, the officers in the camps are covering up. The administration’s covering up. And you really need to empower women and men, and boys and girls to be able to demand justice on their own. Otherwise it’s clear the system’s not going to police itself.
DESVARIEUX: Paula, what is your organization demanding?
DONOVAN: My organization, AIDS-Free World, sprouted this campaign that you referenced, Code Blue, to do two things. One, we just think the entire system of peacekeeping within the UN and the way that it handles sexual exploitation and abuse is broken, and it needs to be assessed from the outside, because it’s a case of the fox watching the hen house. All the minor improvements along the way since 2005 have been initiated by the UN itself. So it’s basically they’re giving themselves their own report card and deciding where they should improve. And they’re very minor improvements, as Brian said.
The other thing that this campaign, Code Blue, is calling for is an end to immunity, which is a bizarre construct that’s being applied to sexual abuse perpetrators, and anybody involved. So if you happen to work for the UN and you’re either a witness or you have evidence, or you are an accused perpetrator, you can claim that you’re not subject to any legal process whatsoever. You’re immune just the way a diplomat is immune. You’re immune from having the police ask you questions, you’re immune from being detained by the police, from having the police come into your home. If someone reports that they were raped in your home that police, local police in a peacekeeping mission can’t go onto the UN base.
So there’s this bizarre notion that even though immunity is just supposed to make sure that diplomats can do their jobs without fear of being arrested because of some political reason, peacekeeping personnel, both military and non-military can perpetrate these crimes and get away with it by simply saying I’m sorry, I work for the UN. You can’t touch me.
DESVARIEUX: Perpetrate these crimes and get away with it. Very fascinating. Paula Donovan and Brian Concannon, thank you both for joining us.
DONOVAN: You’re welcome.
CONCANNON: Thanks for covering this issue.
DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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