On the contrary, the world body has been involved in massive cover-ups of scandals ranging from the Iraq Oil-for-Food fiasco to sexual abuse of children by UN peacekeepers in Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
As the former UN investigator Francis Montil told an Australian newspaper in 2007, in the UN, “the hypocrite, the liar, the fraudster, the nepotist and the dilettante is more likely to survive and progress than the average ‘thinking’ reasonable man or woman”.
Given that the UN tends to turn a blind eye to wrongdoing by its employees, it came as a surprise when UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon took the unprecedented step last week of firing Babacar Gaey, his special representative to the troubled Central African Republic, after a series of scandals involving the sexual abuse of children by UN peacekeepers.
In the latest incident reported by Amnesty International, a UN police officer was accused of raping a 12-year old girl in the capital Bangui. Prior to this, Anders Kompass, a director of field operations at the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, who was recently suspended – and later reinstated by a UN tribunal – had alerted the French government about allegations of sexual exploitation of boys in the Central African Republic by French peacekeepers.
The report contained interviews with children who claimed that they were forced to perform oral sex on French soldiers in exchange for food and money.
The abuse reportedly took place at a UN-run centre for internally displaced people in Bangui.
Children in war-torn countries are at particular risk of sexual exploitation not just by militias, but also by peacekeepers sent in to protect them.
The UN, while claiming “zero tolerance” for sexual abuse by its peacekeepers, has not been able to stem the vice, and is even less willing to bring the culprits to book. Worse, those who report the abuse are often punished, as Kompass was when he was suspended.
Beatrice Edwards, the Executive Director of the Government Accountability Project, which supports whistleblowers, says the UN’s first instinct is to hide behind protocol to retaliate against a staff member who has embarrassed the institution. “This explains why nothing at the UN is reformed – not corruption, nor fraud, illegality or sexual misconduct.”
This is why getting justice for victims is virtually impossible in the UN. A few years ago, UN peacekeepers from Nepal were implicated in spreading cholera in Haiti, which killed more than 8,500 people.
Despite investigations that showed that the strain of cholera in Haiti matched the one prevalent in Nepal at the time, the UN failed to take responsibility for the deaths. The class action suit filed against the UN by the affected victims was dismissed on the grounds that the UN enjoys immunity from prosecution.
The UN says that troop-producing countries should take primary responsibility for disciplining and prosecuting peacekeepers suspected of wrongdoing.
French President Francoise Hollande has vowed to pursue the sexual abuse allegations by the French soldiers. However, it is highly unlikely that poor countries, such as Chad, whose troops have also been accused of sexual abuse in the Central African Republic, will conduct independent investigations and prosecutions.
If the UN cannot prosecute, at the very least, it can bar troop-producing countries whose soldiers have been implicated in criminal activities from participating in future peacekeeping missions.
Peacekeeping may be necessary to protect civilians during conflict, but when your protectors become predators, there is cause for serious concern.
The UN Secretary-General may have taken the right decision this time, but he is known to appeal UN tribunal decisions made in favour of UN whistleblowers who report wrongdoing. Like the organisation he heads, he is more interested in protecting the UN’s reputation than demanding justice for victims.
The UN’s culture of cover-ups has entrenched a culture of corruption and mediocrity in an institution that is expected to be the moral authority in global affairs. This is unfortunate, as no other institution has commanded so much respect internationally.