Can U.N. help itself from underwriting human rights abuses?
July 24th, 2012
03:46 PM ET

Can U.N. help itself from underwriting human rights abuses?

By Philippe Bolopion, Special to CNN

Editor's note: Philippe Bolopion is the U.N. director at Human Rights Watch and the former U.N. correspondent for Le Monde. The views expressed are his own.

To the outside world, the question might sound puzzling: How can the United Nations stop itself from supporting human rights abusers? Sadly, the issue is by no means theoretical. For many years, sometimes unknowingly and sometimes it seems because it chose to look the other way, the United Nations has provided assistance, money or logistical support to armies or police forces involved in abuses and serious human rights violations.

It all came to a head in 2009, when U.N. peacekeepers in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo carried out joint military operations with the Congolese army including providing food, fuel, transport and tactical support to army units engaged in combat against militias in the jungle. The goal was laudable, until it became clear that the support was also benefiting well-known human rights abusers in the army. Some of the U.N.-backed Congolese troops had engaged in rape, murder and pillaging, tarnishing the blue flag in the process.

Under pressure from civil society groups including Human Rights Watch, the U.N. tried to clean-up its act with a conditionality policy. Any unit of the Congolese army receiving support from the United Nations had to be carefully screened, and officers with a track record of grave human rights abuses weeded out.

Soon enough, and to Secretary General Ban Ki Moon’s credit, the pilot Congolese experiment was turned into an organization-wide policy, which was discreetly rolled out on a trial basis in the fall of 2011 under the official name Human Rights Due Diligence Policy on U.N. support to non-U.N. security forces.

The policy states that no U.N. entity should support, train or finance, even indirectly, any army or police force likely to engage in serious human rights violations. As common sense as the policy sounds, it doesn’t sit so easily with the realities facing parts of the U.N. machinery. Some, like the U.N. Development Program, have at times had to rely on repressive states to help people in need.

Six months after the roll out, limited steps have been taken to translate the courageous policy into action. In Somalia, the United Nations is still funneling millions of dollars to AMISOM, the African Union force, which has allegedly routinely disregarded civilian lives in its fight against Somali insurgents, with almost complete impunity. U.N. money is pouring into various programs in South Sudan, Libya, Côte d’Ivoire or Guinea, with little guarantee that some of it won’t end up benefiting the often abusive security forces of these countries.

Part of the problem is that the United Nations isn’t properly applying to its own blue helmets the new policy it seeks to impose on others, and as a result lacks credibility when confronting governments. Despite commendable efforts at U.N. headquarters, countries contributing troops to U.N. peacekeeping operations, including some whose armies have less than stellar rights records, still occasionally deploy rights abusers under the U.N. flag.

In March, three Pakistani officers in the U.N. mission in Haiti were hastily court martialed in a case involving the repeated rape of a 14-year-old boy. The fact that the officers were reportedly held accountable and were flown home to face a year in jail and a loss of their military benefits represents progress on one level. In years past, they might have just been sent home. On the other hand, no information surfaced on the charges, the sentences, or compensation for the boy. And the sentence for repeated rape of a minor hardly reflects the gravity of the crime.

To be sure, the U.N. is confronting real life quandaries.  In Somalia, if it refuses to finance AMISOM, no one will be left to fight Islamic insurgents and the country could descend into even worse chaos. In Congo, the conditionality policy helped the United Nations keep its hands clean, but it is only slowly having an effect on ending impunity.

The U.N. should certainly not claim the moral high ground and walk away from difficult situations at the expense of those at risk. A sensible implementation of the new policy could mean, in Somalia, deploying more U.N. human rights experts to monitor African Union troops and conditioning financial support on good behavior and accountability. In Congo, it could mean increased U.N. engagement to ensure that abusive Congolese commanders face justice.

For the world organization to demonstrate it’s serious about ending support to abusive forces, it should lead by example and adopt stringent standards for itself. The organization needs to aggressively implement its “due diligence” policy, properly fund it, and impose it where it counts – on the ground – even if it ruffles some feathers. The U.N. reputation is at stake, as much as the very mission its founders envisioned when they engraved in its charter to “reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights.”


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Topics: Africa • United Nations

soundoff (13 Responses)
  1. Joseph McCarthy

    The answer to the queston above is evidently No! Just look at the obscene butchery perpetrated by the use of those ungodly drones in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen by this country. This is truly a national disgrace aggravated by this passive support from the U.N. Have moral principles fallen that far by the wayside? Don't people there care anymore? Evidently not!

    July 24, 2012 at 4:33 pm | Reply

      Sadly enough Joseph, I'm afraid that you're right! People just don't care anymore but then again, Westerners never cared about human rights although they pretend to do so!

      July 24, 2012 at 5:04 pm | Reply
    • Joseph

      Calm down dude. The drone attacks on Pakistan and Afghanistan are nothing compared to what these failed states do to their own citizens and minorities. Look what Pakistan is doing to its hindu and christian minoriries.

      July 25, 2012 at 2:39 pm | Reply
  2. j. von hettlingen

    Yes, it could! But the problem is to translate words into actions. The UN is like a huge family with members from different ethnies, cultures and ideologies. Unfortunately the issue of human rights gets tepid support in the international community, which sees it as an obsession of the West.

    July 24, 2012 at 4:52 pm | Reply
  3. Kelly Geoghegan

    Well said: "the United Nations isn’t properly applying to its own blue helmets the new policy it seeks to impose on others, and as a result lacks credibility when confronting governments"

    Unfortunately, the UN's impunity problem goes even deeper. In Haiti, the UN is responsible for bringing on the deadly cholera epidemic that has killed over 7,400 and infected over 580,000. The UN denies any responsibility and has yet to take the steps necessary to stop the epidemic. Over 100 Members of Congress recently signed a letter calling for a better UN response to the crisis.

    Meanwhile, instead of facing these problems, Ban Ki Moon is actively undermining the internal oversight mechanisms that could uncover UN wrongdoing and set the UN back on a path of practicing what it preaches:

    July 24, 2012 at 5:08 pm | Reply
  4. Lee

    The Concept of Orientalism was produced for legalizing colonial Crime in last century but now in this century , the concept of Human Rights are manufactured for protecting imperialist interest .

    July 24, 2012 at 9:57 pm | Reply
  5. deniz boro

    It depends on the founder and master underwriter who has its own human rights problems. People should look up to the statues they build and keep to remind them of the values they were build on. Well at least before exporting them to other countries at least.

    July 24, 2012 at 10:21 pm | Reply
  6. deniz boro

    But as the times go I choose to say it was another wheather /or weather baloon thet just went up...Not even an unidentified something. Can U.N help with UFO's? They may as well 'cause they are on the same unidentified line.

    July 24, 2012 at 10:27 pm | Reply
  7. rightospeak

    We have people being killed daily for politics. The very rich 1 % rule and do not care about people-only money.Try Libya, Syria -"opposition" killing to gain political advantage for the warmongers. Talking about human right is like talking about hunger-it exists, but is only mentioned when it is part of a propaganda.

    July 25, 2012 at 10:12 am | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Very well put, rightospeak. Thank you.

      July 25, 2012 at 1:02 pm | Reply
  8. Mike Farr

    One of the few intelligent things that George W. Bush said was that the UN is an irrelevant debating society.
    The world is not ready for world government.
    The major powers all benefit from selling weapons to dictators and corrupt governments all around the planet. Maybe those who care should discipline their own governments and stop those who profit from the human misery we see all over the world.

    July 25, 2012 at 11:00 am | Reply
    • muslim traitor

      Could you share your source for that Bush quote

      July 25, 2012 at 11:13 am | Reply
  9. Sushil Raj

    This piece is not entirely accurate. I work with the UN in the DR Congo and am involved in some of the the details related to conditionality and human rights due diligence policies. But let me add, I am expressing my views here, and not speaking officially in defense of the UN. There is a robust application of the policy in the DRC as a result of which UN support has been witheld and combined with our human rights investigations led to a number of prosecutions and convictions. The variable outside our control is political will of the state, corruption, and control of the armed forces. We use other quiet diplomacy tactics to address these challenges, something which human rights NGOs sometimes may not understand and therefore advocate a unidimensional perspective. While important to address issues through a critical lens, it is easier to preach from the outside than being involved in the thick of things with constraints placed under great presuure. The conditionality policy is only a beginning in other peacekeeping missions. It requires time to produce results when navigating between a rock, and a hard place, not to mention political minefields and various interests outside the UN. That being said, the UN, can do more and in the DRC we are pushing the agenda and the mandate to its limits within our resources to protect civilians. Philipe makes some important points but must also understand that the UN cannot function like an NGO. Our human rights diplomacy operates in a far more intricate and complex web of conflicting interests. Sometimes the quiet, behind the scenes route is more effective than public denouncements of 'naming and shaming'.

    July 28, 2012 at 1:11 pm | Reply

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