Explosive New Report Accuses UN Troops of Sexual Assault–Will This Lead to Greater Pressure for Withdrawal?

September 03, 2011

(updated below)

ABC News released an explosive report today which appears to confirm one of many allegations that Haitians have been making for weeks regarding gross sexual misconduct by Uruguayan peacekeeping forces who participate in the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). Journalist Ansel Herz, reporting from Port Salut, uncovered a disturbing scene recorded on a cell phone video, showing the Spanish-speaking troops in sky-blue hats and military fatigues laughing as they pin an 18-year-old Haitian youth down on a mattress on the floor, and–as a photograph captured from the video seems to suggest–sexually assault him.

According to the ABC article, Uruguayan Navy Lieutenant Nicolas Casariego confirmed that the video was real, but dismissed charges of assault, construing the incident as a nonsexual “game” of “bullying.” However, a medical certificate filed with the court in Haiti and acquired by ABC News belies his interpretation of video’s the events: the examiner asserted that the alleged victim was beaten and sustained “injuries consistent with having been sexually assaulted.” When interviewed, the youth described being “snatched from behind as he walked by the U.N. base.” The young man’s mother, a street merchant, stated that he “had stayed in his bed during about two weeks but he never told me what was wrong with him. We’re humiliated…After I saw the video, I couldn’t stop crying.”

This latest episode may further amplify the pressure that is already mounting on Latin American countries involved in the U.S.-led MINUSTAH occupation of Haiti to withdraw from the country. Uruguay, which according to ABC News has 1,100 troops stationed in Haiti, had been facing weeks of embarrassing allegations of malfeasance even before this video was released. According to Uruguyan press, in mid-August Uruguayan Undersecretary of Defense Jorge Menéndez confirmed the launch of investigations into accusations that members of the contingent were “involved in prostitution based on sexual relations with disadvantaged children” [translated]. A member of a Port Salut community group denounced the alleged activity, citing as “worst of all” the fact that the peacekeepers “take photographs of naked children on their phones to show the other soldiers” [translated]. The group also criticized MINUSTAH’s creation of a sewage disposal system that emits bad odor into the area–a cause for alarm, considering that new scientific evidence definitively places responsibility for the 2010 introduction of the cholera bacterium into Haiti on UN troops from Nepal stationed in Mirebalais. The contamination of Haiti’s Artibonite river with UN troops’ improperly treated waste was the likely cause of the outbreak, which has killed over 6,000 Haitians to date.

While largely focusing on one particular case of purported sexual assault, ABC News does seem to independently corroborate these complaints raised in the Uruguayan news media: “Sinal Bertrand, a Haitian parliamentary deputy from the Port Salut area, said he began talks with U.N. officials last week about other allegations against the soldiers by residents of Port Salut, ranging from sexually exploiting young women to environmentally polluting the area.” ABC also interviewed a local mechanic in Port Salut who denies that the troops provide more security: “They aren’t useful to us at all…They just go back and forth to the beach, nothing more here in Port Salut. They just check out the young girls.”

Whereas the Uruguayan mission in New York failed to respond to ABC’s requests for comment, a Spanish-language report published two days ago says the Uruguayan Ministry of Defense ordered another “urgent investigation”–independent of those launched earlier in August–to determine the veracity of accusations specifically related to the “aberrant acts” against the Haitian youth who is the subject of the ABC story. If proven accurate, the Uruguayan government promised to apply the “maximum sanction” possible against the perpetrators.

However, the piece also provides reason for skepticism over the possibility of appropriate punishment and commensurate reforms [translated]:
The new complaint occurs a few days after an internal investigation and another carried out by the UN determined that there were no Uruguayan troops implicated in other acusations of purported sexual abuses against the Haitian population.
Earlier on Wednesday, at the end of a training course for officials in the UN peacekeeping mission, [Uruguayan Defense Minister] Fernandez Huidobro said that “in such a large number of people, there will always be someone who behaves wrongly,” but “don’t let those minor failures rob you of your faith in what you are doing, nor should you allow the criticisms you hear prevent you all from believing in yourselves.”
The article also notes that with a population of just 3.4 million, Uruguay provides more MINUSTAH troops, per capita, than any other country. Further emphasizing the political considerations behind Uruguay’s strong participation in the UN occupation of Haiti, another Spanish-language report published earlier this week details the statements made on Tuesday in a Montevideo speech by Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations Esther Brimmer, an Obama appointee, to 120 Uruguayan officials preparing to go to Haiti and Congo as part of UN missions. While Uruguayan reports of misconduct in Haiti were swirling within the country, Brimmer “recognized and appreciated” Uruguay’s role in peacekeeping operations [translated]:

“This visit shows the close cooperation that exists between Uruguay and the U.S. in important foreign affairs for both countries…Your impressive contributions to UN peacekeeping have turned you into an undisputed leader on issues of international peace and security.”
She further underlined the U.S. government’s “strong interest” in working with Uruguay as it presides over the UN Human Rights Council this year. Regardless of the economic crisis, the Obama administration placed a high priority on UN peacekeeping initiatives and would not reduce its economic support for them, she said.
Brimmer’s statements to Uruguayan government officials closely conform to former U.S. Ambassador to Haiti Janet Sanderson’s recommendations in 2008, released by Wikileaks, for bolstering MINUSTAH’s long-term prospects: “The Department [of State] and Embassies in Latin countries contributing troops should work to ensure these countries’ continuing support for MINUSTAH.” As we noted last week, Sanderson considered the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti “an indispensable tool in realizing core USG policy interests in Haiti”:

In the current context of our military commitments elsewhere, the U.S. alone could not replace this mission. This regionally-coordinated Latin American commitment to Haiti would not be possible without the UN umbrella. That same umbrella helps other major donors — led by Canada and followed up by the EU, France, Spain, Japan and others — justify their bilateral assistance domestically. Without a UN-sanctioned peacekeeping and stabilization force, we would be getting far less help from our hemispheric and European partners in managing Haiti.
Celso Amorim, the Defense Minister of Brazil, recently voiced public support for the withdrawal of troops from Haiti, partly spurred by high-profile opposition within his own political party. If domestic pressure forces the government of Uruguay, the largest per capita contributor of soldiers to MINUSTAH, to follow the lead of Brazil (the largest overall contributor), the fragile cooperation among Latin American countries in support of a U.S.-led occupation would be further compromised.
From the standpoint of the Haitian people, who have previously been victims of widespread sexual violations at the hands of Sri Lankan MINUSTAH troops, this would be a welcome development. UN peacekeepers engaging in criminal activity benefit from an opaque legal framework that provides them with broad immunity and fosters a culture of impunity.

In a paper submitted to the UN this year, a broad coalition of NGOs explains [PDF]:

The [Status Of Forces Agreement] SOFA grants broad immunity to members of MINUSTAH for crimes committed in Haiti. Civilian members of MINUSTAH can only be prosecuted for crimes committed in Haiti by mutual agreement of the [Government of Haiti] GOH and the Special Representative. Military members of MINUSTAH are subject to their home country’s exclusive jurisdiction. The Haitian Constitution specifically provides that ordinary courts of law can hear cases of disputes between military personnel and civilians. But MINUSTAH members are only subject to civil liability for acts committed in Haiti if the Special Representative certifies the charges are unrelated to the member’s official duties. The SOFA’s lack of any real accountability for civil or criminal human rights violations of MINUSTAH members violates the GOH’s obligations to ensure universal human rights and equal protection under the law.

In a 2005 article [PDF] published in the journal Politics and Ethics Review, Professor of Government Andrew Ladley argues that “[e]ven if there are ‘laws’ of varying sorts prohibiting certain conduct, the accountability regime is inadequate in at least six main respects:

(1) To the extent that perpetrators might be liable to prosecution in their home countries for offences committed on UN service abroad, there are major inconsistencies between different countries’ legal systems as to what exactly is an offence.

(2) There are major gaps in legal jurisdiction as regards civilians, compared with military personnel.

(3) There are signi?cant differences in jurisdiction, capacity and willingness of countries to hold their troops or civilians accountable.

(4) Even if there were uniform willingness to prosecute back home (and jurisdiction covering both military and civilians), it is often impractical to get reliable evidence to enforce criminal laws back home if the events took place abroad.

(5) The possibility of lifting UN immunity and subjecting a person to the local courts and punishment systems is often either impractical or would raise major other human rights questions about fair process and punishment.

(6) The UN’s own sanctions are essentially ’employment-related’, rather than criminal.”

Haiti is a country that is not experiencing a civil war and is not the subject of a legitimate peacekeeping or post-conflict agreement, the justifications for a UN military presence. After seven years of egregious abuses–and in light of serious obstacles to transparency and accountability for UN forces–a full withdrawal of MINUSTAH troops could not come soon enough.

Update (Sept 4):

The news agency EFE reports (in Spanish) that Alberto Caramés, commander of the Uruguayan Navy, has relieved the chief of the Uruguayan naval contingent in Haiti from his post today and has ordered the immediate repatriation of the five Navy soldiers shown in the ABC video, which was released on Friday. It also explains that the Uruguayan Navy is undertaking a parallel investigation to those ordered by both UN and Haitian authorities. This includes the creation of a Council on Military Discipline in Haiti.

The Uruguayan newspaper El País also notes that Javier Garcia, a member of parliament, has demanded the troops’ repatriation, discharge and arraignment. Below are translated excerpts from the piece, which includes a number of noteworthy points:

The audio [of the cell phone video] allows one to hear the soldiers’ roars of laughter…and some unintelligible comments. However, one of them can clearly be heard saying, “Stop, I’m putting it in.”?
[The Uruguayan Navy spokesperson] said that the directive of Caramés is “to implement the maximum penalties under the code of conduct, including a dishonorable discharge from the Navy units and the loss of pension rights.” The Navy spokesman admitted that the episode “affects the image” of the Uruguayan troops deployed in the mission in Haiti, where Uruguay has 900 troops.

He added that the UN, in its preliminary findings, concluded that “an intent to sexually assault was not apparent, considering the disposition of the crew members, who were all dressed. It was a bad joke, in the wrong place at the wrong time.”?
Nevertheless, the [United Nations] determined that there was a violation to the UN Code by “allowing the entry of a local resident into the military area.”

Meanwhile, Haitian authorities opened an investigation against four Navy soldiers…for sexually assaulting an 18-year-old, said Paul Tarte, a judge on the island, on Friday.

The judge handling the case told [Agence France-Presse] that they were investigating the youth’s testimony and images of the incident…The judge added that medical evidence of the attack on the boy was obtained.

“Having seen the evidence, we’ve given the case to prosecutors to take action,” Tarte said.

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