UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric issued a statement on Friday confirming the video and suggesting it was a vehicle linked to the UN Truce Supervision Organization.
A convoy of vehicles carrying international members of the United Nations the Gaza Strip for Israel after a UN official said all international staff left Gaza over speculations of a near Israeli attack March 31, 2002
(photo credit: REUTERS/SUHAIB SALEM)
The UN has moved unusually quickly to condemn a video that appeared last week showing several UN members, two of them male, with one woman riding on top of one of the men in the back seat, in what appears to be a sexual position. UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric issued a statement on Friday confirming the video and suggesting it was a vehicle linked to the UN Truce Supervision Organization.
The UN has said it is deeply disturbed by the content. “An investigation was swiftly launched and is moving very quickly. Appropriate action will be taken.” This admission of wrongdoing – and commitment to actually investigate and do something – is not usual for the United Nations, which has a long history of sex abuse and other scandals and usually acts with lethargy regarding much worse cases. The UN has largely had impunity to do as it wants in countries where it operates, with its soldiers or members free from being subjected to local laws either by practice or by de facto behavior.
The website The New Humanitarian was key to bringing the video to light. It appears to show a large, moving UN SUV, of the type often used in Israel and the Palestinian areas, with a man in the back seat and a woman in red on top of him. He appears to have his hands on her in a sexual manner. Another man is sitting in the front passenger seat, his head propped against the window as if he is sleeping, drunk or trying to ignore the antics in the back. Someone else, unseen, is driving.
THE MISSION of the UN’s Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) has153 observers, 91 civilian personnel and 153 local staff, with members from some 24 countries. Its mandate is largely redundant and a result of the 1948 Israeli War of Independence. Like most UN organizations it sponges up resources, has little transparency and has numerous members with large white SUVs who seem to be able to use the UN vehicles for entertainment and trips to bars as much as doing the actual mandate of the organization.
For years, anyone going out for a night in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv was used to seeing UN vehicles parked next to areas where there are bars and nightlife. It was never clear why UN personnel get to use their vehicles to go clubbing, while police and soldiers wouldn’t usually get to take their police cars or army jeeps to do the same.
While the Tel Aviv video may not show an illegal act, the UN has a long history of sex abuse. There are 81,000 UN peacekeepers from 121 countries and hundreds of thousands of UN employees, with a small number accused of abuses in several countries. Human Rights Watch (HRW) has condemned the organization for its abuses several times. These abuses usually involve preying on and raping the very people the UN is supposed to be protecting.
For instance, in one case in 2016, a Haitian woman selling charcoal was confronted by a man from a large, white UN SUV who came and raped her after offering her a ride. It appears that in Haiti wherever UN members were present, women subsequently spoke out about them having sexual relationships with locals. In one study 10% of people raised the issue of “children fathered by UN soldiers.” It almost appears as if the UN mission in Haiti was more about sexual exploitation of poor Haitians than any other central mandate.
COUNTRIES WHERE UN peacekeepers are stationed have no rights to protect women from being raped by them. In a system that is more similar to the colonial era than a modern day understanding of human rights, the soldiers who come with UN missions cannot be prosecuted locally. Human Rights groups can merely suggest, as HRW notes, that “children of peacekeeper fathers should have the opportunity to obtain their biological parent’s nationality.”
There are no protections for the children or locals. It is up to the countries contributing members to the mission to enforce rules back home when the offending members return. South Africa chose to court martial abusers. HRW called on countries that contribute peacekeepers to respond to abuse allegations in a January 2020 piece. There was no suggestion that countries being abused by peacekeepers would have a right to say no to the continued rapes.
Countries where UN members are located appear to have no way to protect people from the crimes committed by them. Although this is similar to some conventions that protect diplomats from prosecution abroad, the large number of peacekeepers and frequency of abuses is such that it raises questions about why a better method has not been found.
In 2016 for instance, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon sought reforms regarding abuse by peacekeepers that would include more “vetting” for the personnel and quicker investigations. “For the first time, the secretary-general formally published information on the nationalities of the peacekeepers who are alleged to have sexually abused and exploited women and girls while wearing UN blue helmets.”
Oddly, the UN, which is an international organization, had previously kept all these details private from member states, behaving as if it was completely above the law. A state like Haiti or the Congo has no recourse to ban certain UN personnel who are known to come from countries that do not prosecute the abusers, while only accepting those that have signed a bilateral agreement to uphold the law.
UN MEMBERS, often dubbed “peacekeepers,” were accused of numerous counts of rape and “gang rape” in the Central African Republic in a 2015 HRW report. The long list of other countries where the UN abused vulnerable people include Bosnia, Cambodia, Congo, East Timor, Liberia, Sierra Leone and South Sudan, among others. The AP reported in 2017 about the case of a 14-year-old Congolese girl at a UN-run refugee camp. From the story, the camp itself seemed to be not a haven, but a place of abuse.
When a delegation from the UN passed near where the 14-year-old was living, a Pakistani UN member allegedly came in and raped her. Usually it is not uncommon for men in uniform to go into a refugee camp and wander around and rape people, so it appears that the abuser felt total impunity. The AP story says he raped her “in front of the other children.” The story says she received no support from the UN afterwards and had a child.
In other cases of abuse, such as by US or UK servicemen in various countries during the War on Terror, victims have had some recourse to attempt to bring their cases to international courts or courts with global jurisdiction. But in the case of the UN, it appears there are no courts that oversee these abuses or provide rights for the children to child support from the abuser fathers. The international community created these UN mandates above international law – even above the same laws that the UN Human Rights Council and various declarations about the rights of children would normally protect.
THE AP report is jarring. It found numerous cases of children raped by peacekeepers, including one teenage girl raped by two UN members who also had a child as a result. Many of these cases took place in the last decade, so it is not as if the UN has become better at policing its own abusers: It may have become worse. One quote, apparently related to a “child sex ring” run by UN members in Haiti, notes that peacekeepers “try to distract the girls with cookies, candy and milk to rape them.”
According to the report, there were 43 allegations of abuse in 2017 and the UN has “substantiated” another 41 cases of paternity since 2010. The real numbers are likely far higher. Paternity payment has been made in only one case, according to the AP in 2017. The New York Times alleged in 2019 that UN workers had fathered “hundreds” of children in Haiti. The UN was also involved in a Cholera outbreak in Haiti that killed thousands. In neither case has the UN paid back locals for the suffering.
In other cases, UN vehicles have been involved in accidents, harming locals, and the organization provided no support for the victims. There is no clear database of these accidents, but they are hinted to in other reports about transparency. In a famous incident, linked to the US rather than the UN, the motorcade of the American Ambassador to the UN killed a child while driving in Cameroon in 2016. The UN doesn’t appear to keep a database on its involvement in fatal accidents – and if it does, it is not easily accessible.
It appears in some cases that locals have resisted the UN. Peacekeepers are sometimes targeted in the Congo and killed. Reports do not indicate whether this is because some of the locals feel the UN is acting with impunity and abusing local children. Because the UN often operates in poor countries where people have little recourse to courts and weak central governments are powerless to do anything, the level of impunity continues.
There is hope that the international organization will do the right thing regarding transparency, but no external monitors or auditors to confirm this. For instance, while the UN has its own Special Rapporteurs on various issues, it doesn’t seem to have a victims advocate or a Special Rapporteur on its own involvement in abuses.
With the heightened awareness of law enforcement’s role in the killing of minorities in the US and demands to end police impunity, the UN may be facing more scrutiny for its personnel, and countries may demand answers. The countries in need of the most answers about any support that victims of UN abuses will get tend to be the poorest ones.
The video of UN personnel using its vehicle in Tel Aviv to perform what looks like a sex act raises questions about whether Israel could restrict the use of UN vehicles or request that they not be used except in official duties, as opposed to going out to nightclubs and bars in Tel Aviv.