“Sue Me”:   The Council Seeks Belated Traction on Peacekeeper Abuse, Dr. Robert Zuber

13 Mar

One of the things we do in our office with interns and fellows is insist that they pay as close attention as possible to as many parts of the UN system as they are able.   The UN offers remarkable learning opportunities beyond international peace and security: from global health to fair employment access, the UN’s conceptual and policy scope is virtually unparalleled.

Despite this robust scope, what our young colleagues learn quickly is that, for all of its conceptual clout, the UN is primarily political space: political in the sense of having to negotiate agreements within diverse and often contested settings, and political in the sense of trying to convince others of positions which might well be misleading.  Thus the job of fellows and interns involves both openness to learning and wariness about the “truth” limitations within any government position or presentation. They come to recognize the “salesmanship” even within the most thoughtful statements; they become sensitive to the fact that what is “left out” of statements is often more important than what is included.

This discernment takes time, but once it happens, lights go on in some creative ways.   For instance, this week in a General Assembly informal on the rights of indigenous peoples, my youngest intern listened intently to statements focused on getting “higher” representation in indigenous forums – by which was meant more duly elected tribal leaders and fewer activists who speak and act “more like NGOs.”  Many statements also noted the need to include indigenous peoples in all issues “relevant to them.”

Shortly after, the intern noted, If delegates are looking to integrate duly elected representatives of indigenous groups, he noted, what is NOT relevant to them?  Health? Security? Human Rights?  Employment?  Water Access?  And if “relevance” has issue limitations, doesn’t that make indigenous representatives a bit like NGOs?  If the GA wants a more formal level of representation at forums, doesn’t this mean extending participation to all aspects of the UN’s work?

The politics impeding such broad participation aside, this is what we want from our people – attentive and supportive, but also discerning and evaluative.  Discerning to improve the UN, not to embarrass it.  Attentive to the hopeful evolutions in government positions, but also to efforts to politicize solutions to the world’s horrors, ignoring or covering up inconvenient elements to a full and complete picture.

Some of those “elements” have been on display this past week as the Security Council succeeded at responding to what has become a persistent blight on the UN system – the abuse by peacekeepers of civilians entrusted to their protective care.  Such abuses may represent a small fraction of the violence taking place in sites of UN operations from Central African Republic to Yemen, but the despair left in the wake of peacekeeper abuse is a strong and pervasive multiplier impacting both civilian populations and UN operations far beyond peacekeeping.  This effect called to mind the impact of techniques used by torturers whereby they surround the victim with persons posing as police and religious clergy who appear to be condoning what they should otherwise be preventing.  Abuse at the hands of erstwhile “protectors” and “caregivers” is doubly traumatic.

During the debate and the subsequent discussion on what became resolution 2272 – which included a rare separate (no) vote on an amendment proposed by Egypt – the Council went on the record, in the words of Japan, to preserve this “last hope” to civilians represented by peacekeepers through measures that include robust state reporting of response to abuses and threats of repatriation for offending units. The Council also, as highlighted by Spain, Uruguay and others, urged greater effort to honor our collective responsibility to victims abused by forces originally generated and then mandated for purposes of their protection.

The passion in the Council chamber on this day was palpable and seemed sincere.  As many members noted, the impacts on the abused and on the reputation of the institution tasked with protecting them is staggering.   Most military people –including my own family members around the dinner table – understand full well that abuse destroys confidence in all aspects of operations, making the task of honorable military (and other) protectors that much more difficult.  As the US, France and others rightly noted, it is appalling when citizens fear the sight of blue helmets rather than see in them a sign that their ordeal might finally have some positive resolution.  Such fear does not easily dispel.

The US – one of several states on the Council that is not a Troop Contributing Country but which served as penholder on resolution 2272 — clearly articulated the manner in which abuse by those trained to protect represents a higher order of offense. Indeed, the US Ambassador used the opportunity provided by the Egypt amendment controversy to address Council members in a lengthy statement that in some ways was among the best of her Council tenure. She was passionate, powerful and mostly off-script.  Unfortunately, she was also dismissive of any who challenged the scope, working methods or motives behind the resolution, as well as of other efforts inside the UN system to confront and address this scourge. “My motive,” she proclaimed at one point, is to address this cancer. “Sue me.”

Indeed.  As the dominant power within the Council, even more so in back rooms than in official settings, the US knows perfectly well that no lawsuits are forthcoming.   No state would dare.  None would be permitted.   States seemed to be biting their metaphorical tongue as they so often do when the US or some other permanent member takes off on an accusatory rant.

And not all the stated cautions regarding this resolution were in bad faith.  As Malaysia noted during the Council discussion, due to an “insufficient” consultative process with Troop Contributing Countries we might have lost the chance for forging genuine consensus on peacekeeper abuse. Senegal was reasonable in urging that notions of “collective punishment” for abuse be avoided at all costs. Venezuela’s formula of seeking “justice not stigma” was wise, if a bit unclear on the implementation.   Russia made veiled references to the (also) unresolved abuse by French forces, not a factor to be taken lightly within these discussions.

Clearly, not all the relevant factors are served by emotive and dismissive bursts.  Why, as the US itself noted, have these abuse investigations taken so long?   Why has no senior official in the Secretariat to date been held directly accountable for what are now longstanding and mostly neglected patterns of abuse?   Why have abuses (and uneven investigations) by French forces in the context of larger peacekeeping operations not been more public?  And what does it mean for the Council (and for future support by Troop Contributors) when a key non-contributing member dismisses the concerns of Council colleagues (not to mention General Assembly “C-34” efforts to deal with this problem) with what seemed to border on contempt?

One of the grave problems of our time, from which the UN is hardly immune, is the confusion of branding and truth-telling – words used as instruments to convince more than as a means to discern and disclose.  The political tensions within the Council, coupled with the need to brand national policies beyond their potential effectiveness, have created conditions in which all positions – including the most forceful, passionate ones – require a closer scrutiny.  All contain elements of truth, but all neglect elements that can turn partial remedies into effective, sustainable international commitments.

For my young colleagues, this is all becoming a sober but challenging occasion for discernment — a positive and badly needed step on peacekeeper abuse undertaken within a scenario characterized by damaging delays, mixed national motives and rhetoric that alternates between passion for victims and the patronizing of UN colleagues.  We are, all of us – victims and diplomats, caregivers and civil society – desperate for that just and lasting solution to the horrific pain which these abuses have inflicted. At this point, we can only hope that resolution 2272 is the starting point for honest, sustained engagement.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: