Former First Lady of South Africa and Mozambique has added her voice to a growing campaign to block staff in UN peacekeeping missions from hiding behind immunity when accused of crimes and sexual abuse.
Graça Machel has added her voice to a campaign called Code Blue that calls on the UN Secretary General to immediately waver diplomatic immunity for all mission staff when complaints of sexual exploitation arise.
The campaign launched in New York, is also calling on UN member states to appoint an independent Commission of Inquiry to examine every facet of sexual abuse in peacekeeping operations.
Machel produced a UN report in 1996 on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children and recommended that all gender-based violence during conflicts be prosecuted as a war crime.
19 years later, she believes little has changed within the UN system.
“These are women and children who have been brutalized by war and these are people who [are] eager … who represents the so called international community – the support, to say it’s ok now, we are going to start anew. We are going to have peace and pain is not going to be part of our life again and exactly the same people who infringe,” says Machel.
“How does it happen that the more we have sophisticated, international laws instruments, like conventions and protocols, we have also institutions which are expected to enforce those international laws, and people who within institutions are responsible to transform principles, to make them alive, it’s exactly those people, who turn against women and children,” she adds.
Code Blue has called for an amendment to the 1948 convention on immunity for UN civilian personnel to exclude cases of sexual abuse and exploitation.
Preliminary findings by the campaign have found that the vast majority of alleged abuse is by non-military personnel and a smaller percentage by the blue helmets themselves.
Co-director of organisation AIDS-Free World, that is spearheading the campaign, Paula Donovan says, “The problem with peacekeeping sexual exploitation and abuse and the application of immunity to UN staff and people who report ultimately to the SG is that it’s a gross misapplication of the 1946 convention. That convention was never intended to cover crimes, it certainly wasn’t intended to cover sexual crimes and it wasn’t intended to provide an obstacle to justice.”
The UN says it has a zero tolerance policy against sexual abuse but waiving immunity remains the prerogative of the Secretary General.
Donovan’s campaign is calling for an independent investigation.
“An independent, truly independent, commissioned by member states not by anyone in the Secretariat, must be commissioned to look at every single aspect of immunity, sexual exploitation, and abuse and the way it’s dealt with by the UN system,” she adds.
Co-director of Aids Free World, Stephen Lewis also blasted the UN’s handling of a leaked internal report that revealed French troops sexually abused children in the Central African Republic, even though the French were not under UN mandate.
“It’s now a year since those children were interviewed in the Central African Republic and they knew as early as May in 2014 that terrible things were being done. And frankly we believe that the UN should have jumped all over France from that day to this. Never giving them a moment when we as a United Nations weren’t asking what are you doing, have you charged people, have you taken them to trial, have you put them in jail, what are you doing about this abuse?” asks Lewis.
The UN has come under scrutiny in recent weeks for initially suspending the official who leaked the report to French authorities and then reinstating him.
France is now investigating the claims against its troops.