UN: Bullies and Beggars

UNITED NATIONS, (IPS) – As the United Nations gears up to dispatch thousands of new troops into political trouble spots in sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean, its peacekeeping missions are being undermined by a shortage of funds, unpaid debts and charges of sexual abuse against women and children caught in the crossfire.

The growing problems come as the world body is set to increase its peacekeepers from the current 53,500 troops to a high of over 70,000 by the end of 2004.

The existing 13 peacekeeping missions on three continents are expected to rise to 16 – with new deployments in Haiti, Burundi and Sudan – virtually doubling the U.N.’s annual peacekeeping budget to a hefty four billion dollars.

Still, the cost of all U.N. peacekeeping is minimal, says Undersecretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Jean-Marie Guehenno, “when you consider that civil wars cost $120 billion annually.”

But the world’s poorer nations, who provide the bulk of the troops, are complaining that the United Nations has fallen behind in its payments for the troops and equipment from their nations. As of December last year, the world body owed $439 million to 71 countries currently participating in U.N. operations.

The five biggest debts are owed to Pakistan ($53.2 million), Bangladesh ($47.8 million), India ($32.3 million), Jordan ($29.2 million) and Nigeria ($28.3 million).

As of April, the 10 largest troop contributors to U.N. operations were developing nations: Pakistan (7,680 troops), Bangladesh (6,362), Nigeria (3,398), India (2,930), Ghana (2,790), Nepal (2,290), Uruguay (1,833), Kenya (1,826), Ethiopia (1,822) and Jordan (1,804).

In contrast, Western nations contribute fewer than 600 peacekeepers each on average, the largest contingents coming from Portugal (558 troops), United States (562), United Kingdom (550), France (509) and Ireland (485).

“Developing nations are virtually subsidizing U.N. peacekeeping operations,” a South Asian diplomat told IPS, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We cannot afford to continue providing troops without quick reimbursements,” he added.

Santiago Wins of Uruguay says the United Nations owes his country about $14.4 million, which includes payments for troops who served in Cambodia and Somalia in the 1990s. “We have not been reimbursed for more than a decade,” he told the U.N.’s administrative and budgetary committee in April.

Funds for peacekeeping come from assessed contributions from the 191 U.N. member states. But as of December 2003, the United Nations was owed over $1.1 billion in outstanding peacekeeping arrears. The biggest single defaulter was the United States, which holds a bill for $482 million.

The world body blames the outstanding arrears as one of the primary reasons for defaulting on payments to troop-contributing nations.

Since Japan is the second largest contributor to U.N. peacekeeping, Japanese Ambassador Toshiro Ozawa complained last week his country would be called upon to shoulder about $900 million of the peacekeeping burden.

“This is an enormous figure, surpassing Japan’s current annual bilateral official development assistance (ODA) to the African countries,” he said. “It may be true that there is no price-tag on peace, but it is also true that member states’ resources are not unlimited,” he complained.

“Should not member states face up to the fact that increased budgets for peacekeeping do consume resources that might otherwise flow into such areas as development and poverty alleviation?” Ozawa added.

As a result of the cash crunch, a U.N. budgetary oversight committee last week cut by more than 50 percent a budget proposed by Secretary-General Kofi Annan for the newest peacekeeping mission in Cote d’Ivoire, launched in April. The original $502 million budget was slashed to $297 million, triggering a strong protest from the African group of countries.

“The group wishes to emphasize the collective responsibility of the General Assembly to ensure that the operation (in Cote d’Ivoire) receives adequate human and financial resources to successfully implement its mandate, which will culminate in elections in October 2005,” said a spokesman for the group.

Cash problems aside, the United Nations has also been hit by a rash of new complaints about sexual abuse of women and children by peacekeepers, civilian staff and humanitarian organizations operating either with the blessings of the world body or under the U.N. flag.

A system-wide investigation was triggered by a report from Annan, who says that six out of 48 U.N. agencies operating in the field have received reports of new cases of sexual exploitation or abuse, mostly by blue-helmeted U.N. peacekeepers, during 2003.

The agencies that received the complaints include the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, the U.N. Children’s Fund, the World Food Program and the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees.

“Sexual exploitation, including all forms of trafficking and related offences, particularly in the case of vulnerable persons dependent on international aid, is completely unacceptable,” said Margaret Stanley of Ireland, expressing the views of the 25-member European Union.

“It is just intolerable,” says Norma Goicochea of Cuba, “because sexual exploitation and abuse is a serious matter threatening the credibility of the U.N.’s humanitarian and peacekeeping operations.”

In presenting Annan’s report before the committee, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Resources Management Rosemary McCreery said the study represents only a first step in the process of ensuring compliance of U.N. principles and standards.

She specifically singled out the sexual abuse perpetrated by civilian, police and military contingents in Kosovo and in the Bunia region in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). McCreery said preliminary internal investigations this year had revealed “widespread abuses” in DRC.

She told delegates Annan is seeking the support of member states to ensure that their military personnel serving with the United Nations are held accountable for any acts of sexual exploitation and abuse.

The Washington Times reported Thursday that a soon-to-be-released book by current and former U.N. employees contends that Bulgarian peacekeepers in Cambodia in the mid-1990s were actually former convicts who agreed to serve six months in the Southeast country in exchange for their freedom at the end of their term.

The Bulgarians were “drunk as sailors” and “rape vulnerable Cambodian women,” says the book, Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures: A True Story From Hell on Earth.

Bulgaria’s ambassador to the United States has denied the allegations.

The U.N.’s Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) has also continued to probe individual cases of sexual abuse in peacekeeping operations. But several delegates told the administrative and budgetary committee the world body is not doing enough.

The secretary-general’s report “had not elaborated extensively on measures taken to improve the conditions of refugees and vulnerable communities,” said Karen Lock of South Africa.

She said that last year the OIOS had found “that conditions in the camps made refugees vulnerable to sexual and other forms of exploitation.”

“It was hoped that those measures would be reported in greater detail to the appropriate inter-governmental bodies,” Lock added.

Jerry Kramer of Canada complained about the lack of transparency in Annan’s report. When the report noted that “appropriate action” had been taken, it was not unreasonable for the U.N. Secretariat to be able to answer the question of what that action was, he argued.

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Author: Thalif Deen

Thalif Deen writes for Inter Press Service.