Rights Groups to UN Troops: Police Thyself

Some soldiers working under the UN flag around the world are accused of smuggling, insensitivity, prostitution, rape, and murder during their peacekeeping activities

AS United Nations peacekeepers take up a broader and more aggressive role in quelling civil conflicts, human rights activists warn that the UN must do more to ensure that its troops do not abuse the human rights of the civilians they are assigned to protect.

Charges of unprofessional and criminal conduct affect only a small fraction of the UN's 70,000 peacekeepers, but range all the way from reckless driving to corruption and profiteering to rape. Serious questions have also been raised in the case of peacekeepers in Somalia about tactics and order at the command level that have led to the deaths of many civilians.

Just today in Zagreb, Maj. Gen. Gunther Greindl of Austria released the results of a UN probe of misconduct of UN personnel in the former Yugoslavia. Evidence was found of black-market trade in coffee, cigarettes, liquor, and fuel as well as widespread abuse of UN identity cards and press passes.

Most allegations of UN misbehavior and human rights abuse never make headlines. Many remain unsubstantiated. Under the UN system, each troop-contributing nation is responsible for the discipline of its own forces. Some offenders face courts-martial. Nine Canadian troops, for instance, currently face charges from negligence to murder linked to the 1993 torture deaths of two Somalis. But most of the accused simply are sent home.

Human rights leaders say any such misconduct tarnishes the UN's image and adversely affects respect for the UN and its credibility just as it is taking on a more assertive role in solving regional problems.

Hero's welcome

When UN peacekeepers arrived in Cambodia after 20 years of civil war, for example, they were largely welcomed as rescuers. ``We were supposed to be angels ... but when the UN left, there were some very hostile comments,'' recalls Stephen Marks, a human rights worker assigned to UN operations there. ``It was very humiliating.''

``Unlike an occupying army, the UN needs to be well thought of -

its forces don't want to be unpopular when they leave,'' says Cynthia Brown, UN liaison for Human Rights Watch.

Most of the serious charges against UN personnel have centered on blue berets in Cambodia, Somalia, and the former Yugoslavia.

In Somalia, where clan armies are accused of using civilians as human shields, UN troops have had authority to fire without being shot at first. For several months in 1993, the capture of Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed was high on the UN priority list. Amnesty International says many Somali deaths appear to violate international humanitarian law and rules of war.

Amnesty, which is investigating two major 1993 incidents involving US troops, said Jan. 26, ``The lesson learned in Somalia is that peacekeepers must not consider themselves above the law - it is essential that the UN make a definitive statement as soon as possible, affirming that all its personnel will be bound by UN standards.''

A UN investigatory panel is probing the details of the June ambush of Pakistani peacekeepers. The world body also should fully investigate the many UN attacks on Somali civilians, says Felice Gaer, director of the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights in New York. ``There is no procedure by which the UN assesses the performance of its own troops,'' she insists.

In Cambodia, vehicles driven by UN troops were involved often enough in accidents involving civilians that several children submitted graphic examples in poster drawings for a human rights day contest, Mr. Marks says. The UN was unprepared to deal with the problem, he says, but eventually drew up rules and launched a voluntary fund to help victims' families.

Some UN troops in Cambodia have been accused of trying to smuggle arms, ammunition, and even live animals out of the country. Bulgarian peacekeepers, who in early contingents included a number of ex-convicts, reportedly vandalized the inside of a plane taking them home and tried to smuggle out knives and live monkeys and snakes as souvenirs. The Bulgarian Defense Ministry says reports of misbehavior have been exaggerated.

Yasushi Akashi, former head of UN peacekeeping operations in Cambodia and now head of the UN operation in the former Yugoslavia, has said UN standards should be stricter, and that peacekeepers should be trained to be more sensitive to cultural differences.

Many of the charges against UN personnel in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia were first aired in a British newspaper, Manchester Guardian, article last summer. The resulting UN investigation led by General Greindl reported that prostitution inside French and Ukrainian barracks in Sarajevo was halted by mid-1993. But the group's probe of another charge, first made by New York Newsday last fall, that Sarajevo-based UN troops were patronizing a Serb-run ``brothel'' of Croatian and Muslim prisoners, is not yet complete.

Increase in prostitution

Human rights groups say both prostitution and profiteering have increased markedly in the presence of large UN operations, such as those in Cambodia and Bosnia. The Geneva-based Defense for Children International, a children's rights group, says the UN operation in Cambodia has helped spur a sharp rise in child prostitution there.

The UN needs to do a much better job of training and oversight to protect the reputation and integrity of its troops, human rights activists say. Higher standards of behavior and common military procedures are needed, they say. Also, even if the job of discipline remains national, as most nations including the US say it must, the UN should follow cases of misconduct more closely and insist that justice be done, critics say. At the very least, they say, the UN itself should investigate more cases. ``The UN has neither an investigative body for violations of humanitarian law committed by its troops, nor a code of conduct common to all military contingents,'' charges Doctors Without Borders, the France-based medical relief group in its recent annual report. ``It [the UN] has no military police, no authority to punish the guilty and compensate the victims.... Everyone and no one is responsible for controlling UN forces.''

``The UN has to get serious about policing itself in terms of corruption and in terms of finding a way of addressing violations of humanitarian laws,'' Ms. Gaer says. ``The problem is that the UN doesn't seem to have a system. It doesn't project that it cares. In the case of real abuses such as attacks on civilians ... the UN passes the buck back to the national governments, creating the image of being cavalier.''

Limited powers

UN officials insist they do care but are bound by limited resources and limited powers.

The UN is weighing varied training options, from use of mobile units to train national trainers to the holding of multilateral training exercises. Shashi Tharoor, a senior UN peacekeeping official, notes that the six-month rotation pattern for most national troops requires almost continuous training. He cautions that any decision will be closely linked to available funds.

More hope for the future may lie outside the UN. Some governments, including Canada, the Nordic countries, Austria, and Australia, have long had intensive and exemplary peacekeeper training programs.

The International Peace Academy produces a handbook widely considered a standard text in the field. Several nations, including the US, are adapting existing military facilities to peacekeeper training. The UN in the past, according to Mr. Tharoor, has focused largely on sharing such data.

In agreements with troop-contributing nations, the UN stresses the need to observe international humanitarian law and the rules of war. Francoise Derron, spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), says that since all UN members have signed the Geneva conventions, each troop contributor is ``absolutely, automatically bound'' by the rules.

The UN, as an example to others, should be the first to apply humanitarian principles in any conflict, ICRC president Cornelio Sommaruga says.

Dealing with troop misconduct after the fact is a far tougher chore for the UN than tackling the problem through better training.

Yet Mr. Tharoor notes that many complaints of troop misbehavior and criminal conduct originate with other national contingents on the scene. The UN does monitor many cases, particularly of criminal misconduct, from start to finish, he says.

Also, he defends the common practice of sending any misbehaving soldiers home as a significant sanction in itself. ``Going home prematurely from an important foreign assignment is a blot on a soldier's record ... that would be held against him for the rest of his career.''

Technically the UN can refuse troop offers from nations with persistent troop misbehavior problems. Yet the UN currently faces a soldier shortage and has been unable to reimburse troop contributors promptly because UN members have lagged in peacekeeping payments.

``Since the demand for troops has exploded so sharply, the UN hasn't been in a position to say, `No, thanks, your units are undisciplined and we don't want them,' '' says Barry Blechman, chairman of the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington, a nonprofit public policy institution.

``The UN is not in a position to be very picky,'' agrees Enid Schoettle, a UN expert with the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. ``You can't really say, `We want the best troops in the world, trained to a fare-thee-well in behavior,' and at the same time be casual about the way we reimburse states.''

More bang for the buck

Still, one point of leverage for the UN, says William Durch, a military expert with the Stimson Center, is that smaller nations often recover more in eventual UN reimbursement than their actual troop costs. ``They [such nations] make more money than they spend,'' Mr. Durch notes. ``Therefore there ought to be a net benefit to the UN from recruiting them.''

The UN has been weighing the idea of assigning an inspector to each peacekeeping mission to watch over all issues from troop conduct to efficiency. Yet Tharoor, noting that each UN operation has a provost marshal, and that all peacekeeping contingents of size have a military police arm, says the idea still needs careful study.

One possible option is more ad hoc investigations and actions such as the recent establishment of a tribunal for war crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia. Andrew Clapham, the UN representative for Amnesty International, says the duties of the new post for UN High Commissioner for Human Rights should include monitoring of UN troop conduct.

Many legal experts say ad hoc answers rather than permanent new institutions are the most likely UN route for now. ``Maybe the world is ready for an international criminal court to try grave breaches of human rights and humanitarian law,'' says Ms. Schoettle, but she predicts that any such accomplishment would be preceded by one ``whale of a fight.''

Noting that all armies have a code of military justice, Hurst Hannum, a UN expert with the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., says that the UN may need to make it clearer that it really expects enforcement.

``I think it's going to require a substantial amount of pressure from the outside, frankly, to make the UN feel that, as difficult as it is to negotiate with the governments concerned, it is more difficult - and worse for the credibility of the UN - not to change things,'' says Cynthia Brown of Human Rights Watch. ``I think the pressure has to be really on the UN to counterweigh the pressure it gets from governments to leave things alone.''

``All these things are just one more example of how the questions are catching up to the UN that it simply hasn't had the time to ask,'' Mr. Hannum says.

``The UN can't just pause and declare a six-month moratorium on new operations while it figures out all the rules.... I think the UN has done more or less the best it can.''

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