Anyone who was shocked by the most recent revelations of sexual misconduct by United Nations staff has never set foot in a U.N.-sponsored refugee camp. Sex crimes are only one especially disturbing symptom of a culture of abuse that exists in the United Nations precisely because the United Nations and its staff lack accountability.
This lack of accountability is the central blemish on today's United Nations, and it lies behind most of the recent headlines. Whether taking advantage of a malnourished refugee or of a lucrative oil-for-food contract, the temptation is there, the act is easy and the risk of punishment is nil.
I arrived in Sierra Leone as a legal aid worker in the summer of 2003, one year after the release of a damaging report on sexual abuse in U.N. refugee camps in West Africa. Although the report's description of widespread sexual abuse had prompted Secretary General Kofi Annan to issue a strongly worded "zero tolerance" policy, I found abuse of a sexual nature almost every day -- zero compliance with zero tolerance, as one investigator was to write. U.N. leaders had simply not expended any effort beyond lip service to carry out this zero tolerance policy.
In fact, abuse at these camps went beyond sexual violations: Injustices of one sort or another were perpetrated by U.N. missions or their affiliated nongovernmental organizations every day in the camps I visited. Corruption was the norm, in particular the embezzlement of food and funds by NGO officials, which often left camp resources dangerously inadequate. Utterly arbitrary judicial systems in the camps subjected refugees to violent physical punishment or months in prison for trivial offenses -- all at the whim of officials and in the absence of any sort of hearing.
I became especially involved in the plight of 11 young Liberian men from the Tobanda refugee camp near Kenema, Sierra Leone. They had been arrested and imprisoned, without trial, by the U.N.-sponsored camp management. The accusation: stealing plastic tarps. The refugee youths had received permission from camp management to use surplus tarps for housing, but they had not been given explicit permission to do so by officials of the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
The camp's management later had them arrested by the local authorities, and they remained in a squalid, inadequate Sierra Leonean state prison, without a formal trial or any legal representation. Of course, the UNHCR officer assigned to monitor refugees in local prisons would be unaware of this fact -- a prison log book revealed that he had not visited the prison for several months. By the time the young men were freed they had spent four months in a filthy, damp prison and were suffering from malaria, scabies and malnutrition. The prison was just yards from the UNHCR (and UNICEF) headquarters in Kenema.
This experience was sadly typical for the refugees with whom I worked. Although charged with the care of desperate refugees, many of the UNHCR staff remained ambivalent or hostile to the basic rights and needs of these vulnerable people. And they acted without fear of consequence.
The risk to these staff members is low in U.N. refugee camps, because peacekeepers engaged in criminal acts are immune from local prosecution. Therefore, local parties seeking justice must travel to the peacekeeper's home country. U.N. workers from countries with unresponsive legal systems, or those committing unspectacular crimes, can sleep easy. At the same time, local NGO employees who are contracted by the United Nations to work in the camps are covered by a de facto implied immunity. That is, if these individuals are identified as being connected with U.N. operations, they will probably never face charges for their actions by local authorities. In West Africa, most of the sexual misconduct accusations are leveled against local NGO staff members.
If the United Nations is to enjoy such immunity, it is incumbent on the organization to police itself aggressively and thoroughly. Yet the recent stonewalling over a series of scandals from the United Nations -- from oil-for-food to a sexual harassment imbroglio involving a high U.N. official -- are typical of a bureaucracy dedicated to self-preservation. This code of behavior travels rapidly down the organizational chart. The message is: Cover your tracks and the United Nations will obstruct your prosecution.
After the 2002 report documented sexual abuse, Annan's steely resolve led to exactly zero criminal prosecutions of U.N. officials for sexual abuse. I expect little difference now that refugee camp conditions have returned to the headlines. As before, Annan has delivered vague statements but prosecuted no one. It appears that the status quo reigns and that those perpetrating all sorts of abuses in refugee camps may continue undisturbed. The United Nations is a vital institution that needs a housecleaning.
The writer is a student at New York University School of Law. He worked for the Foundation for International Dignity in the refugee camps surrounding Kenema, Sierra Leone, in 2003. He will be available to answer questions at 2 p.m. today on www.washingtonpost.com.