The UN's Culture of Cover-Ups: The Rape of Nine-Year-Olds in the Central African Republic

By Alexander O'Riordan · 11 May 2015

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Picture: The United Nations Building in New York courtesy Knowsphotos/flickr
Picture: The United Nations Building in New York courtesy Knowsphotos/flickr

Once again the mask has dropped and we have a glimpse of how the United Nations’ (UN) senior management actively supports and covers up abuse. In 2014, a rare principled UN employee, Anders Kompass found and reported credible evidence that French peacekeepers raped starving, homeless, young boys as young as nine-years-old. Instead of reacting with a sense of urgency the UN’s senior management decided to sit on the report denying any possibility of justice or redress for the victims. Frustrated with this blatant disregard for the rights of the victims, Kompass took the brave step of leaking the report to the French government who commended him and immediately launched an investigation.

The UN’s response was to ask Kompass for his resignation and when he declined, the UN suspended him from his duties and directed their anti-corruption investigators the task of humiliating Kompass and shredding his professional reputation. The retaliatory action the UN’s senior management levelled at Kompass has been ruled unlawful but it has caused Kompass irreparable harm, while his superiors remain untouched even though they should be jailed for their complicity in this cover up. Worse still, while the French government is trying to investigate, the UN has actually and purposefully obstructed the investigation citing diplomatic immunity, denying investigators access to UN officials that themselves want to cooperate.

This is not an isolated incident. In fact, it speaks more to what has become an open secret in how the UN manages its staff. Nine former whistle-blowers who were subjected to similar and comparable retaliation promptly wrote to the UN Secretary General requesting action pointing out that retaliatory action against whistle-blowers is the norm in the UN and only serves to cover up abuse, corruption and flagrant incompetence. Instead of this latest example of retaliation resulting in outrage from UN staff, staff unions and donors to the UN, the response has largely been silence. The deafening silence by current UN employees and their unwillingness to publically support Kompass is only explained by the fact that the majority of UN employees are either complicit or scared. Those UN officials not scared, however, should be called out and ostracised. Those that are scared should also be called out because it is as important that donors and civil society get an accurate picture of how arcane management practices in the UN undermine the organisation’s credibility and competence.

Unfortunately, the liberal press is too often hesitant in calling out the UN for fear of being associated with conservative critics that want to shutter the UN. The problem is that by not investigating and consistently turning a blind eye, the liberal press is doing an immeasurable disservice to this vital organisation that needs urgent and far-reaching reform. Now more than ever, the role of those that believe in the UN, is to clearly express distaste for these practices and call UN executives to account. As an institution, the UN’s legitimacy is entirely grounded in its moral authority. Its continued unwillingness to protect whistle blowers is only a sign of its corrosive executives that need to be excised before they destroy the little good that is left in the organisation.

Nobody deserves more support on this issue, than Matthew Russsel Lee of Innercity Press who relentlessly investigates and documents UN malpractice and cover-ups despite overwhelming hostility levelled at him by the UN. Notable recent articles by Lee point to the UN’s covering up both reports on potential abuse in other countries as well as in burying external reviews that confirm the organisation’s continued persecution of whistle-blowers that break rank to report abuse. Lee needs our support and recognition; his continued pressing of the UN for transparency and accountability is only met by insults and bullying tactics. When questioning the CAR rapes, UN spokesmen called Lee “rude” and asked him to remain silent rather than answering the questions posed.

At the core of the problem is more than just a few rotten apples. The problem is systemic and is embedded in how the UN recruits and promotes its officials. Whilst on the outside the UN looks like any other organisation that uses merit based recruitment, in fact merit only applies to junior or low level staff.  Staff entering the UN without preferential access must apply and go through a screening process, work hard, take up difficult posts and build a reputation to get promoted. However, for senior management, they are largely given their jobs by way of political appointment.

Make no mistake: political appointment is just an institutionalised mechanism for the UN to peddle favours, ensuring continued corruption and nepotism at the highest level. After all, if these senior officials deserved their appointments they would be competitive in an open and transparent recruitment process. Instead, the United Nations system doles out senior, exceptionally well paid jobs in return for favours. In fact, it is an open secret that the easiest way for a government official to get a job in the UN is to figure out how to direct your own government’s funds into a UN project. Delivering funding to the UN has become another form of currying favour and when done at the appropriate level, inevitably results in a lucrative job in the UN.

Unfortunately, such unregulated and non-transparent trading of posts for favours is also subject to abuse: covering up some UN failure, granting tax free status illegally and refusing to prosecute a UN official for rape, are all easily bartered for jobs in the right circumstance. What this means is that the UN tends to be rotten from the top down with political appointees responsible for overseeing lower level employees that themselves may never ascend the hierarchy no matter how competent they are. Over time, this means that most well-meaning and committed UN officials will eventually have to choose between doing what a corrupt and noxious politically appointed manager wants and doing what is morally correct. This is why the UN was happy to bury Kompass’s report for a year but when he spoke up they moved with haste to silence him. The problem is far from isolated and it is increasingly evident that the very organisational culture is the problem. The less the UN’s organisational culture of nepotism, corruption and cover up is spoken about, the more likely it is perpetuated infinitum.

Again this is an open secret. In fact there was even a major Hollywood blockbuster about, starring Rachel Weisz based on the true story of The Whistleblower the UN retaliated against in Bosnia. Unfortunately, as Rasna Warah, a Kenyan journalist, points out, the UN’s unofficial policy continues to be to cover up and hide abusive and corrupt behaviour whilst punishing anybody in the system that speaks up.

It is time to speak up about this. Every, and any UN official should be called on in whatever forum possible to publically condemn these practices so as to create bottom up pressure for reform. The UN should be called on to immediately relinquish diplomatic immunity for officials implicated in or in covering up sexual assault and corruption. Reform must also be urged from the top down: donors need to cut funding to the UN and its related agencies until there is significant reform. And the brand itself needs to be challenged: for example, it is simply unacceptable for polite society to continue funding UNICEF, the UN’s Children Fund until it publically condemns this purported cover up of the very rape of children it promises to protect.

Now more than ever, funding needs to be directed away from the UN. After all, there are many other organisations that deliver what the UN does but do it cheaper and unlike the UN, are actually subject to legal oversight, thus unable to hide abusive staff behind the curtain of diplomatic immunity.

O'Riordan is an Aid Effectiveness and Donor Funding Researcher.

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