Is the UN’s peacekeeper selection process flawed?

In March 2011, a 16-year-old youth named Lemon Hossen was walking to retrieve his family’s cows in Bangladesh’s southern Jhalokathi District when motorcycles carrying officers of the country’s paramilitary Rapid Action Battalion pulled up beside him. One grabbed him and called him a terrorist.

“I told them that I am not a terrorist, I am a student,” Hoseen, now 19, told IRIN. “But then one of them shot me in the left leg and drove off. My leg had to be amputated to save my life… I am a victim of state terrorism, yet the responsible officers are still at large.”

RAB has received extensive criticism - including for “torture and other ill-treatment, arbitrary arrests, and for approximately 800 killings over the last 10 years. But despite that dismal record, RAB officers are among those recruited into United Nations peacekeeping missions, raising concerns about human rights failures. Reports on Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Nigeria released in 2014 at the Open Society Institute in New York raised questions about human rights vetting for soldiers in countries that contribute to UN peacekeeping operations.

“These are four of the top seven troop-contributing countries in the world, so their policies and practices on the ground are important to what happens when people are deployed in the field,” said Jerry Fowler, senior policy analyst at Open Society Policy Center.

There are currently more than 82,000 troops deployed on UN peacekeeping missions around the world.

“You can’t send individuals to the world’s most difficult places to police or secure the most vulnerable people when they have been remiss at doing so effectively and within the law in their own countries,” said Carla Ferstman, director of REDRESS, a UK-based human rights organization. “It sends a message to victims in conflict zones that they don’t matter.”

Vetting has been formalized, however. In 2012 the UN passed a human rights screening policy requiring that both troop-contributing governments and individual recruits attest to clean records as part of the onboarding process.

“The [2012] policy signals to troop-contributing countries that the UN takes matters of conduct and human rights seriously,” said David Haeri, director of the Policy, Evaluation and Training Division at the UN Department of Peace-keeping Operations and Department of Field Services. “It is imperative that the UN leads by example in terms of respect for human rights, especially considering the fragile environments we deploy to.”

However, some of the countries supplying the largest contingents of troops to UN missions are infamous for poor human rights records, and their armed forces have been involved in years of domestic counter-insurgency efforts.

Officials say cleaning up the supply of troops to peacekeeping deployments is under way, and activists call for stringent monitoring and enforcement from the top down to put pressure on governments that benefit financially from putting their soldiers in UN uniforms. Experts say much of the pressure to improve vetting will need to begin at home.

Exporting abusers?

There are plenty of other cases similar to Hoseen’s in other countries. On Feb. 17, 2004, Maina Sunuwar, 15, was arrested by Royal Nepal Army officers and tortured and killed at a facility used to train peacekeeping troops.

That year, the eighth of a civil war between Maoist rebels and the royal government, more than 3,000 Nepalis were serving on UN peacekeeping missions. The Royal Nepal Army credited its “rich exposure to international peacekeeping” with ensuring “that it remains one of the few organizations in Nepal where the teaching and practice of human rights has been long institutionalized.”

Speaking in Kathmandu in 2007, then High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour, referencing the Sunuwar case as an example, said: “My office is keen to ensure that state security forces… whose previous conduct so dictates, should not be allowed to participate in United Nations operations until thorough investigations and appropriate prosecutions through civilian courts have been undertaken.”

“The impact of Arbour’s statement was immediately seen and the number of disappearances decreased,” Mandira Sharma, who ran the Nepali rights NGO Advocacy Forum during the conflict, told IRIN. “This statement warned the army and they were worried about their role in UN peacekeeping.”

That same year a Nepali court charged Army General Niranjan Basnet and three officers under his command with Sunuwar’s murder. The UN expelled Basnet from his post on a peacekeeping mission in Chad in 2009. However, analysts argued that the case, while technically resolved on the UN’s part, indicated systematic issues.

“The UN has lost credibility as its core values have been marginalized… With no systematic vetting of peacekeeping troops by either the government or the UN, even high-profile alleged abusers have been deployed in lucrative posts in UN missions,” the International Crisis Group argued in a 2010 Nepal report.

Disturbing domestic records

“If UN troops have a track record of aggressive counter-insurgency tactics at home, they may be liable to turn a blind eye - or even assist - equally tough tactics against rebel groups and militias while on peacekeeping duty,” explained Richard Gowan, associate director at New York University’s Centre on International Cooperation.

“The fact that UN personnel have troubling records of brutal counter-insurgency at home is especially worrying because in many countries, such as Mali and the DRC [Democratic Republic of Congo], UN peace operations are blurring into counter-insurgency missions themselves,” he said.

IRIN is a service of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. It does not necessarily reflect the view of the UN