Justice for the victims of Canadian peacekeepers

If the Liberals were serious about a feminist foreign policy and international rules-based-order they would immediately modify the criminal code to allow Canadians on UN missions to be prosecuted.

Currently, when Canadian police and soldiers are deployed on UN missions, they are effectively immune from prosecution for any crimes they commit. Yet Canadians dispatched to Haiti engaged in numerous instances of sexual misconduct.

A recently released study of the UN mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo found that foreign troops abused children, raped young women and exchanged food for sex. The study led by Susan Bartels of Queen’s University and University of Birmingham’s Sabine Lee, conducted “60 in-depth interviews with victims of sexual misconduct who conceived children with peacekeepers, and 35 interviews with children who were born as a result.” The youngest child impregnated by a peacekeeper was ten years old and half the mothers were under 18 when they conceived. The study was largely funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

An earlier study by the same academics found that UN forces had illicit sexual relations and raped young girls during the 2004–17 United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). In mid 2017 2,500 Haitians who lived near UN bases were asked “what it’s like to be a woman or a girl living in a community that hosts a peacekeeping mission.” Without being asked specifically about sexual relations with peacekeepers, 265 respondents talked of children fathered by members of the peacekeeping force, which were widely nicknamed “Pitit MINUSTAH”. Many single mothers struggled with stigma and poverty when the soldiers departed. Respondents described girls as young as 11 sexually abused and impregnated by UN representatives. According to the study, Canadians were responsible for the seventh largest number of ‘Petit MINUSTAH’.

During the 13-years of MINUSTAH Canadians led the policing component of the UN mission and there were usually about 100 Canadian police officers in Haiti. A handful of Canadian soldiers were also part of the command of the much larger military side of MINUSTAH and about 500 Canadian troops were in Haiti during the first six months of the mission.

Officially, UN soldiers are prohibited from having sexual relations with locals. So are Canadian police part of UN missions. The RCMP claims it “strictly prohibits intimate or sexual relationships with members of the local population, due to the difference in real or perceived power and authority.”

The Bartels and Lee study in Haiti reinforced the conclusions of previous investigations. An Associated Press investigation, partly based on an internal UN report, found that peacekeepers engaged in “transactional” sex relations for food and medicine with over 200 women and girls. The investigations implicated 134 Sri Lankan troops in a sex ring that exploited nine children from 2004 to 2007. None of the MINUSTAH soldiers were imprisoned.

Despite committing countless abuses, MINUSTAH soldiers were almost never held to account. According to the Status Forces Agreement signed between the UN and the government installed after the US, France and Canada ousted the elected president in 2004, MINUSTAH was not subject to Haitian laws. At worst, soldiers were sent home for trial. Only one individual MINUSTAH soldier, a Uruguayan, is known to have been imprisoned for an abuse in Haiti.

According to a September 2019 CBC investigation “Canadian law can’t punish some peacekeepers for sex misconduct abroad — and the UN isn’t happy about it” UN investigators discovered at least six Canadians with the international mission in Haiti who engaged in sexual misconduct. They were sent home but none of them were pursued criminally. Two Quebec provincial police officers who faced internal disciplinary hearings simply retired to avoid any punishment. The only discipline meted out to a Canadian member of MINUSTAH was a police officer who received a nine-day suspension.

Canada’s public broadcaster reported on the case of an RCMP officer who picked up a local sex worker in a UN vehicle. A conflict arose over payment and the Canadian allegedly threatened the Haitian woman with his UN-issued firearm. The woman escaped with his badge and called the police. Despite UN investigators being confident in the details of the case, nothing happened to the policeman (his name was redacted from internal documents). He simply returned home.

With few exceptions, Canadian law protects members of UN missions from prosecution. Even when the action in question would contravene Canada’s criminal code, peacekeepers can’t be charged. In response to the CBC investigation, then Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said the rules should be changed. She told the public broadcaster it “is totally unacceptable for (officers) to harm the people who they are sent to protect. And it is important for us to be sure that we have a framework here in Canada that allows us to deal with any offences committed outside the country.” Three years after Freeland’s statement, no new legislation has been announced to remedy the situation.

If the Trudeau Government were truly committed to a feminist foreign policy and international rules-based-order they would enact the simple cost-free measure.

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