The UN: Allowed to Abuse

By Hélène Molinari and Delphine Bauer. This article is part of a series on sexual violence in armed conflicts, commissioned and published by Zero Impunity

“Call Camille, tell him that you are a friend from college. Speak in French. He’s waiting for your call.” Camille [not his real name], who has been a United Nations official for roughly a decade, agreed to speak with Zero Impunity about the organization’s internal justice system. During a four-hour long interview held across from the UN headquarters in Manhattan, Camille disclosed the level of dysfunction within this department tasked with processing and handing down justice in cases in which UN personnel are found to have committed acts of sexual violence.

A far cry from the UN’s noble intention to protect human rights, accusations of sexual abuse committed by peacekeepers and UN officials have blighted the organization since the 1990s. Between 2008 and 2013 alone, here were 480 allegations of sexual abuse carried out by UN personnel, according to the “Evaluation of the Enforcement and Remedial Assistance Efforts for Sexual Exploitation and Abuse by the United Nations and Related Personnel in Peacekeeping Operations” (published in May 2015 by the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services). However, there is every reason to believe that these incidents remain largely underreported.

 A mess of scandals

From Bosnia, East Timor and Cambodia to Liberia, Guinea and Haiti to the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the list of accusations of sexual abuse carried out by UN personnel is long and global. “Even though peacekeeping forces are supposed to protect the population, some organizations have reported that the number of rapes goes up as soon as there is a [UN] military presence,” says sociologist Vanessa Fargnoli.

After the revelation of each new scandal, the UN makes another round of fervent promises. In 2004, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan invited H.R.H. Prince Zeid Ra’ad Zeid Al-Hussein, the Jordanian Permanent Representative to the UN, to be his Adviser on Sexual Exploitation and Abuse by UN Peacekeeping Personnel. In March 2005, the prince released what is now called “the Zeid Report”, a document that condemned ongoing sexual abuse carried out by UN employees and included a strategy to eliminate future exploitation and abuse. Its publication was like a bomb going off in the midst of the international organization. However, 12 years later, none of Zeid’s proposals have been translated into action.

The Hotel Uvira in the DRC. © Damien Roudeau
The Hotel Uvira in the DRC. © Damien Roudeau

The climate of impunity continues, despite the fact that the UN’s code of conduct is crystal clear for the 120,000 personnel taking part in the international organization’s sixteen current peacekeeping missions [A number that includes 100,000 “blue helmets”—UN peacekeepers known for their distinctive light blue headwear— and the 20,000 people who make up its civilian staff, which includes policemen who take on a consulting roles as “experts” during missions]. The UN claims to have a zero tolerance policy towards sexual abuse and exploitation. It forbids its staff from engaging in sex with prostitutes or anyone under the age of 18. Moreover, sexual relationships with people receiving aid or assistance from the UN are deeply discouraged.

But on the ground, it plays out differently. Machismo, hyper masculinity, misogyny and racism conspire with some UN employees’ sense of total power. Set against a background of crumbling state power in the places where the UN works, this creates a climate favorable to “abuse of power, which take a sexual form,” according to sociologist Fargnoli. The aid workers and UN officials who agreed to speak anonymously with Zero Impunity throughout the course of this investigation described the climate in the field during peacekeeping missions as one of “unbridled sexuality” where “moral boundaries are put aside”.

The Fontan affair

In 2010, Margot Wallström, Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, called the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) “the world capital of rape” during a speech to the 15 member countries that make up the UN Security Council. Wallström had just been to the DRC and she wanted the diplomats to pay attention to this crisis. However, they had no idea that the DRC was also where there happened to be the highest number of allegations against UN personnel. Roughly 45% of accusations of sexual violence carried out by UN staff that were recorded between 2008 and 2013 involved incidents that took place in the DRC. A third of those reports involved minors.

In 2012, Victoria Fontan, a professor at the University for Peace in Costa Rica, was carrying out a research project on the Democratic Republic of Congo. She heard rumors of rapes committed by members of MONUSCO (the UN mission in the DRC) and decided to investigate. She met with Zero Impunity in 2016, four years after launching that particular investigation. Though she has since moved on to other projects, her memory of that chapter of her life is crystal clear.

She spent three months in eastern DRC interviewing survivors of sexual violence [allegedly committed by UN employees]. In the course of her interviews, she discovered two cases that had never been investigated by the United Nations. The first case involved an underage victim who was beaten and raped multiple times by five soldiers, three of whom were part of the MONUSCO forces. The young girl was impregnated by one of her rapists, though the baby died two days after its birth.

Fontan also investigated an ongoing situation in the Congolese city of Uvira. There, she spent three days at a hotel that had supposedly become a prostitution “hot spot” for Monusco personnel. She went undercover during her stay, pretending to be a hair stylist. Her [tooltip text=”fixer” gravity=”nw”]A local who acts as guide and translator.[/tooltip]pretended to be an investor. During a phone conversation with Zero Impunity in September 2016, Fontan’s fixer said that he remembered the hotel’s clients being “soldiers of a certain rank who could pay for a room a few miles from the camp for a few hours or for a night”. He also remembered “suspicious activities” in the hotel, though he said “we were not able to actually see what was going on in the rooms because there were no cameras”.

The duo then questioned the owner of the hotel about the goings on there. He confirmed their observations as well as allegations made in testimonies that Fontan and her fixer had collected. Armed with this information, Fontan wrote a report claiming that blue helmets and UN personnel—including Russian pilots—used the services of prostitutes, including minors, at the hotel in Uvira. She wrote an article for the Colombian press, but she didn’t manage to bring any wider attention to the scandal that she had uncovered.

Suspicious comings and goings at Hotel Uvira. © Damien Roudeau
Suspicious comings and goings at Hotel Uvira. © Damien Roudeau

Fontan decided to send her research to a Canadian journalist who she knew. On August 3, 2012, he published an article based on her discoveries called “Peacekeepers gone wild: How much more abuse will the UN ignore in Congo?” on the website The Globe and Mail. Finally, the UN reacted.

Fontan was personally contacted by Carman Lapointe, who was then acting as the Under Secretary General of the Office of Internal Oversight Services [OIOS]. The OIOS was created in 1994 to carry out internal investigations within the UN when its employees were accused of fraud, corruption or sexual abuse. Lapointe is now retired. When she spoke to Zero Impunity via Skype on October 2016, she did not have a clear memory of interacting with Fontan or the case that she reported in Uvira.

Lapointe thought that “the Nairobi office” had carried out an investigation into the incidents, but that they hadn’t found enough evidence to support the accusations. The written response from the press department of Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) is even more mysterious: “By the time the article [by Fontan’s friend] was published, the hotel identified in her report had reportedly been closed. The information available in the article was insufficient to allow for further investigation.”

A third version of the UN’s response to Fontan’s report was given by the director of the investigations department in the UN, who is based in New York: “From our research we have identified around 5 cases which have some similarities to the news reports, but none of them match exactly, I cannot therefore categorically say that we have investigated the matters to which the articles refer but then I can’t rule it out either.”

In summary, five years after the incidents were reported, there is no tangible sign in UN archives—which seem to be mired in chaos and confusion— that they were ever investigated. Fontan, for her part, thinks that the scandal was hushed up.

“Their first response was to claim that I had never even been to the DRC. Then, they lead me on for a few weeks by making me believe that they would make me part of the investigation. After a while, I stopped hearing from them except for an [unrelated] message asking me to work as a consultant on a project.” No one ever interviewed her about what she saw in Uvira or asked for her notes. Zero Impunity found no evidence to suggest that any of the victims had been contacted by UN investigators. As for the hotel, it is still in business. On a side note, there are excellent comments left on its page on Trip Advisor. However, it is hard to know if UN personnel still frequent it.

The tip of the iceberg

The Fontan affair is far from the only allegations to disappear into the administrative limbo of the UN. Deep within a labyrinth of New York offices, Zero Impunity met with Sylvain Roy, a high-level official in the UN Conduct and Discipline Unit (CDU), the office in charge of oversight for all complaints for “misconduct” by UN personnel.

“We determine if we have enough information to launch an investigation or not,” he explained. “If we don’t have enough information, then we ask our staff on the ground to provide additional information.”

His unit is made up of 70 people, some in New York and others in the field, who are responsible for any complaints made against 120,000 UN personnel scattered across the globe. He estimates that his department receives between 400 and 500 allegations of “misconduct” per year. About 15% of those reports involve accusations of sexual violence [or about 75 cases per year].

But how many of these complaints are dismissed before even being evaluated by Roy’s team? How many of these allegations does the CDU set aside due to “lack of evidence”? No one interviewed by Zero Impunity was able to provide exact numbers; neither are these numbers printed in any reports.

“It’s all very subjective,” mused Thierry (not his real name), an aid worker who prefers to stay anonymous. He spent two years in the Central African Republic. “It depends on the chief of the Conduct and Discipline Unit (CDU) Team on the field and his political will and if he has the courage to launch investigations that will likely turn out to be both long and difficult, including for the victims.”

In almost all cases involving sexual assaults carried out by UN personnel, the incident is reported to local NGOs and medical charities instead of the CDU. These locally-based groups “have no desire to pass on the information only to have it lost in an administrative quagmire” and prefer to deal with these cases of abuse and sexual exploitation themselves.

If the case does make it through the filter of the CDU, which then judges that there is enough proof to launch an investigation, the file is then transferred to the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS). The decision about whether or not to launch an investigation falls to the director of the investigative division of the OIOS. According to Carman Lapointe, who headed the UN OIOS from 2010 to 2015, “there have been cases of serious misconduct [that] didn’t get reported.”

General incompetence

If the Conduct and Discipline Unit represents an initial obstacle, the OIOS is no more efficient. While the OIOS is supposed to act as an independent, sovereign institution, the reality is quite a different picture.

This was exposed in December 2015, after publication of a report commissioned by then-UN chief Ban Ki-Moon into Kompass affair [Anders Kompass was a high-level UN official who was suspended after having given French authorities an internal document concerning sexual abuse committed by French soldiers in the Central African Republic.] Marie Deschamps, the Canadian judge tasked with producing the report, concluded that the Kompass affair revealed not only an abuse of power but called into question the credibility and the independence of the office of OIOS head Carman Lapointe as well as that of the “entire organization” of the UN.

Aside from cultivating a privileged relationship with the Secretariat General, Lapointe also admitted that she had spent 60% of her time dealing with complaints filed by her own staff. According to Camille [not his real time], the UN official who spoke to Zero Impunity on conditions of anonymity, the rest of the time, “the goal was to carry out surface-level investigations.”

“It was important to send investigators out to a location,” he said. “They’d look around a bit, scare the staff on the ground and then, ultimately, report that they’ve found nothing.” As with the CDU, the OIOS dropped certain complaints because of arbitrary or sometimes biased decisions made by individual actors. “There are allegations that we don’t investigate,” Lapointe, the former Under Secretary at OIOS, admitted. “If there’s an initial assessment that says [that the allegation came in] anonymously or you don’t have enough evidence or leads to go on, there’s not much you can do.”

In 2015, according to official figures, out of 69 allegations received, only 17 were investigated. Of those 17 cases, only seven were found to have sufficient proof to move forward, while ten were dropped because of lack of proof or “details.”

“This is a handful of allegations each year,” the UN stated. In the field, the methods of investigation seem to be ill-adapted to cases involving sexual abuse, going as far as to constitute a further violence against victims. Camille described the procedure used by many investigators as “check-list” interviews. “We make up a list of predetermined questions and, [when we speak to suspects or victims], we check them off, without seeking to understand the psychology of the victims. Even if the victim gives us interesting information, we don’t explore it.”

The UN headquarters in New York.© Damien Roudeau
The UN headquarters in New York.© Damien Roudeau

Zero Impunity was given the transcriptions of several such interviews. In one, an investigator asks repeatedly about the HIV-positive status of an underage Haitian girl, even though it had nothing to do with her alleged rape by a UN official. During another interview (this one with a man suspected of participating in a gang rape in the DRC), the same investigator conducts an interview as if everything is normal, despite the fact that the suspect being questioned seems to be in a state of inebriation.

Camille also laments a lack of specialization and experience amongst investigators, a problem that was also reported by Françoise Bouchet-Saulnier, the judicial director at French medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières [Doctors Without Borders]. In one case that took place in 2015, a UN investigator looking into allegations of sexual abuse in the Central African Republic wanted to take naked photos of an underage girl who had been abused, “supposedly in order to show these images to a doctor who would be asked to determine her age,” Bouchet-Saulnier said. “It was shocking and totally inappropriate,” she said.

In another instance, once again in the Central African Republic, an underage boy who had been raped by a soldier was taken to a military base and asked to identify his presumed attacker from a line-up of men.

“The investigators said, ‘We’ll see if he recognizes someone in uniform,’” Bouchet-Saulnier said. “The boy felt like it was a kind of confrontation with his aggressor. He was completely traumatized.”

Contacted in February 2017, Ben Swanson, the director of the investigation division of the OIOS, vehemently denied the accusations of malpractice during investigations carried out by his staff in the Central African Republic: “I can quite categorically state that OIOS has not taken photographs of naked SEA [Sexual Exploitation and Abuse] victims, or any other type of victim for that matter,” Swanson said.

In any case, investigators who ask too many questions get shown the door. This was the case for Peter Gallo, who worked as an investigator from 2010 to 2015, before becoming a whistleblower. His superiors claimed he was asking questions to “satisfy [his] own curiosity.”

“As rare as roses on an iceberg”

Thinking to act in the best interest of the organization, some UN employees have tried to speak out against this internal dysfunction. However, obtaining the protection of the organization is a long battle with few victors. Indeed, whistleblowers are more likely to get show the door. Often, superiors start questioning of their performance and, eventually, the whistleblower’s contract is not renewed.

Indeed, GAP (Government Accountability Project), an NGO that protects whistleblowers and offers them legal aid, stated in 2014 that “99% of the 400 UN personnel who have sought the support of the United Nations since 2006” have not obtained it.

The “Standards of conduct for the international civil service”, a UN code of conduct for its international civil servants, specifies however that “international civil servants have the duty to report any breach of the organization’s regulations and rules to the official or entity within their organizations whose responsibility it is to take appropriate action” and that “an international civil servant who reports such a breach in good faith or who cooperates with an audit or investigation has the right to be protected against retaliation for doing so.”

In 2003, UN Human Rights Investigator Caroline Hunt-Matthes was supposed to go into the field to investigate allegations that an underage refugee in Sri Lanka had been raped by a UN employee. “The representative decided, because [the victim] didn’t cry during the interview, that that rape hadn’t happened and there was no reason to waste the money of the organization,” she said. “The representative said, ‘I don’t want you coming down here [to Sri Lanka]. That didn’t happen.’”

Caroline didn’t listen to him and carried out her investigation anyway. She found that the rape claims were substantiated. However, she suddenly found herself blocked from proceeding by a series of obstructions put in place by her hierarchy. Zero Impunity was able to find no information about what eventually happened to the case. Caroline Hunt-Matthes’ contract was not renewed.

“At first, I had the support of my supervisors and I documented all of the obstructions,” she said. “However, little by little, [my supervisors] dropped me. Eventually, they fabricated a negative performance evaluation.”

Hunt-Matthes fought back against the United Nations. The Appeals Court, which is the competent court to contest rulings of the UN Dispute Tribunal ruled in 2013 that “the decision to not renew the contract of the claimant was illegal” and that it was “an act of retaliation”. The UN appealed. Hunt-Matthes is now in her 13th year of proceedings, which makes her case the longest in the history of the UN.

“When it was established that an act of retaliation had happened in 2013, [tooltip text=”Antonio Guterres” gravity=”nw”] The current Secretary General of the United Nations since January 2017. [/tooltip] had an opportunity to do something about it and did nothing,” she said. “Retaliation judgments are as rare as roses on icebergs. And, to miss that opportunity sends a clear message that retaliation’s ok within the organization.”

Since 2011, her case has set legal precedent. It is no longer possible to appeal a decision to the Ethics Office, which also has refused her any support.

Hunt-Matthes will appear again in March 2017 for an umpteenth hearing at the UN Dispute Tribunal. Outcasts, whistleblowers often find themselves cornered. The incidents that they spoke out about, which might concern cases of abuse, obstruction or corruption sometimes, take a back seat to what they are going through.

“The danger is that he media focuses on the cases of reprisals against whistleblowers instead of the cases of sexual abuse,” says Kathryn Bolkovac, an American who used to work as a UN International Police Force monitor. In 1999, she blew the whistle on UN officers who were paying for prostitutes and participating in the trafficking of women in Bosnia.

“It’s a distraction [from the real issue of abuse], but it is also part of the process of raising awareness because it highlights the system of corruption that is in place,” she said. For every whistleblower who speaks with the press, how many people don’t dare speak out? How many more are crushed by the machine? The procedures to prevent sexual abuse and exploitation and to condemn perpetrators are long and exhausting and occur in a context where rights—as well as the rules of the game— remain unclear and difficult to determine. This systematic dysfunction exists all the way up the UN pyramid.

The fault of member states?

In a confidential cable from June 9, 2011 that Zero Impunity has examined, Susanna Malcorra, the former Chief of Staff to the Executive Office at the United Nations under Ban Ki-moon, worried that “mission investigation entities continue to carry out investigative activities into allegations of misconduct or serious misconduct, prior to notification of member states and that such allegations are in some instances not reported until investigations are completed by missions.”

In other words, the UN carried out investigations without warning the member state where the incident occurred. This is not proper protocol. Worse yet, internal investigations carried out generally last several months [16 on average]. When states are not warned about these investigations, they obviously take no action to prevent a presumed aggressor from harming others.

Zero Impunity spoke to the Department of Peacekeeping Operations about the question of investigations being carried out without member state knowledge. “As a standard procedure, we do an assessment before notifying Member States and some people confuse this with investigation,” the DPKO responded.

Did the organization decide to be this zealous about its investigations in order to make as little noise as possible—so as to avoid, in case of damning facts, having to pull out the contingents found guilty.

This new admission of failure to respect procedures upsets the organization’s main line of defense: that its hands are tied to the goodwill of its member states.

Jack Christofides, a high-ranking official in the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), didn’t back down. “Even when we identify that someone is guilty, there is not much that we can do because we lack means within our mechanism for punishment,” Christofides said. But is it a lack of means or a lack of will?

After each scandal, the UN reiterates its promises. © Damien Roudeau
After each scandal, the UN reiterates its promises. © Damien Roudeau

Realpolitik— decision-making based on practical rather than moral considerations— isn’t absent in the ranks of the UN, in fact, quite the contrary. With a need for more and more troops—on-the-ground personnel has doubled in ten years—the UN is constantly trying to keep a good relationship going with its member states.

That desire was clearly evident in an incident that took place in Haiti in January 2012 when several Pakistani soldiers from MINUSTAH (the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti) were arrested in the northern Haitian town of Gonaïves on accusations of raping a 13-year-old disabled boy. Local Haitian authorities wanted to try the accused in a local military court, which would have meant lifting their immunity, which is a decision that only the United Nations Secretariat could make. However, the boy disappeared. Luckily, he was found shortly thereafter.

However, a source who is a high-level in the OIOS told Zero Impunity, that the kidnap case was no mystery. “We knew that the commanding officer of the peacekeeping mission in Haiti had given the order to kidnap the boy,” he said. This case was discussed during a meeting in Haiti attended by Hervé Ladsous, the Head of the DPKO, and then-Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. Ban apparently pounded the table with his fist.

“We need to hold more than just the soldiers who raped the young boy accountable,” Ban said. “We need to also go after the people in the command structure who turned a blind eye or in this case actually tried to destroy the evidence and get rid of the boy.”

However, Zero Impunity’s source within the OIOS said that Ladsous circumnavigated Ban’s desire to punish the higher-ups in the local mission. “Hervé Ladsous negotiated over dinner that night the repatriation of the command structure so they wouldn’t be dealt with,” the source said. It was a clear sign of disagreement within the organization over how to treat these scandals.

The source told Zero Impunity that when she asked Ladsous why he had made that decision, he responded, simply, “That’s politics.” Was it by chance? The facts point to a clear motivation for ignoring the case. Currently, 7,000 Pakistani soldiers wear the blue beret that marks them as UN Peacekeepers. Pakistan contributes the second-largest number of soldiers to the UN in the world.

Zero Impunity reached out to the DPKO, who responded by email. While the communications department said that Ladsous did make a trip to Haiti in January 2012, it claims that the primary reason behind the trip was to “familiarize” the head of the DPKO with the situation on the ground and that “his agenda shows no indication of a dinner like the one described.” Furthermore, the communications department added “neither Mr. Ladsous nor colleagues who have accompanied him during this visit in have any recollection of it”.

Zero Impunity discovered that, in the end, the two Pakistani peacekeepers were ultimately found guilty of rape by a Haitian military court. They were sentenced to just a year in prison. The commander, who was rumored to have ordered the boy’s kidnapping, denied all accusations. Even so, he was “barred from participating in future peacekeeping operations,” according to the United Nations. So, in the end, the guilty received mere taps on the wrist. The majority of accusations made against the UN, however, never even make it to a court.

Immunity, impunity

Officially, the UN relies on member nations to punish aggressors. That’s the official line. However, even once the UN has carried out an investigation into accusations against one of its personnel in the field, nothing is yet certain. After the findings of such an investigation are reported, it’s up to the UN mission on the ground decides whether or not the accused will be repatriated. Then, it’s up to the presumed aggressor’s country of origin whether or not that person will be tried. There are many obstacles to prosecuting an aggressor, from a shortage of international investigators to proof that is considered not admissible in national courts. Add to that the fact that many of the victims have no access to a lawyer.

This general impunity also applies to civilian staff of UN peacekeeping missions. Though it gets much less media attention, abuse by civilian staff is no less rare.

Indeed, quite the contrary: a 2015 evaluation report carried out by OIOS found that “while the largest number of allegations is against military personnel, civilians account 
for a percentage disproportionate to their numbers.”

So why do we only hear about accusations against the blue helmets? Camille, the United Nations official who spoke with Zero Impunity anonymously about dysfunction within the UN’s internal justice department, has a hypothesis.

“It’s another way to move attention away from the real problem,” he said. “It’s as if the UN is saying, ‘It’s the soldiers [doing it], so it is up to member states to react.” When asked why we only hear about accusations against blue helmets, Jack Christofides, the high-ranking DPKO official, didn’t respond. However, he spoke about a weakness that he sees within the system.

“You’re commander, it’s your responsibility,” he said. “Ok, you can do certain things and maybe they’ll have some effects on your troops. But can you change the behavior of your international civilians? Not so easy.” No, it’s not easy to change attitudes when we know that all personnel have to do in the way of training against sexual violence is to complete four modules that last a total of several hours. They even earn a certificate at the end.

And yet, even participation in that minimal training doesn’t seem to be enforced. According to an audit report carried out by MONUSCO, the UN mission in the DRC, in 2015, there was “no proof to that 39,361 (84%) of the 47,214 civil and military personnel had taken part in training course” established by the UN Conduct and Discipline Unit. Worse, the same report said that “MONUSCO didn’t train 90% of the 18,000 soldiers on the ground in sexual violence linked to conflict.”

And yet, what does it mean that, between 2012 and 2013, the UN distributed 1,694,694 condoms to its personnel in the DRC alone? Soldiers who have been found guilty of “misconduct” are meant to be filtered out by the so-called Misconduct Tracking System and banned from taking part in any future missions. “Do you know how many people are sent on the field?” Christofides, the high-ranking DPKO official said. “It’s a phenomenal amount, it’s simply not possible to do a screening on an individual basis.”

 Add to this that some of the staff have questionable backgrounds, says Thierry, the aid worker who spent two years in the Central African Republic. In missions, you find “a certain number of former rebels, who reintegrated into [tooltip text=”national armies” gravity=”nw”]This is the case in the DRC.[/tooltip]. These rebels have committed horrifying atrocities.”

“Judge us according to the way that we stop abuse”

“The phenomenon of sexual exploitation is a tiny phenomenon. You’re looking at an elephant by looking at its small toe,” says Christofides. By the end of the interview with Zero Impunity, this DPKO official is visibly annoyed about all of the questions about sexual violence. “Judge us according to the way that we stop abuse and punish it,” he said. In other words, consider our actions in the face of these revelations.

The UN’s relentless struggle to preserve its image sidelines victims. Forgotten within a system that preserves impunity, victims don’t know their rights.

Even the Trust Fund, which was launched in March 2016 with the aim of providing a first response to survivors of sexual aggression carried out by UN personnel, seems like an illusion. “It isn’t a compensation fund,” says Sylvain Roy. “But, at least, victims will have access to a little bit of aid, food and shelter—things like that.”

Portraits of the Secretaries General of the UN. © Damien Roudeau
Portraits of the Secretaries General of the UN. © Damien Roudeau

Portraits of a long line of UN Secretary Generals—all men— look down on the immense entry hall of the UN headquarters in New York. While accompanying the journalists of Zero Impunity to the door after an interview, the press secretary for the DPKO insists that the UN has made huge strides in terms of communication about the issue.

“We comment publicly, in a proactive way to questions of sexual violence,” she said. “We announce new cases and what we plan on doing about it. A lot of the information that you, the media, have is because we chose to announce it to build public confidence.”

 The next day, one of the press secretary’s colleagues called Zero Impunity, asking to read and approve any quotes that would be included the article. An exchange of emails is followed by a phone call from the press service. They ask Zero Impunity to reconsider publication of the interviews they initially accorded. That’s followed by another call. Then, an email. It’s clear that, at the United Nations, transparency has its limits.

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