How a Haiti child sex ring was whitewashed in UN system

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — The general sat on a plastic lawn chair in the garden of his mother’s home, the scent of tropical blooms filling the air as he talked about the alleged rape and sodomy of a Haitian teenager by a Sri Lankan peacekeeper.

There was no rape, insisted Maj. Gen. Jagath Dias, who was dispatched to Haiti to investigate the 2013 case. He may not have been the best choice for that job — Dias had been accused of atrocities in his own country’s vicious civil war.

Dias didn’t talk to the accuser, he told The Associated Press, nor did he interview medical staff who examined her. But he did clear his soldier, who remained in the Sri Lankan military.

It wasn’t the first time that Sri Lankan soldiers were accused of sexual abuse: In 2007, a group of Haitian children identified 134 Sri Lankan peacekeepers in a child sex ring that went on for three years, the AP reported in April.

In that case, the Sri Lankan military repatriated 114 of the peacekeepers, but none was ever jailed.

In fact, Sri Lanka has never prosecuted a single soldier for sexual assault or sexual misconduct while serving in a peacekeeping mission abroad, the AP found.

The alleged abuses committed by its troops abroad stem from a culture of impunity that arose during Sri Lanka’s civil war and has seeped into its peacekeeping missions. The government has consistently refused calls for independent investigations into its generation-long civil war, marked by widespread reports of rape camps, torture, mass killings and other alleged war crimes by its troops.

The U.N. has deployed thousands of peacekeepers from Sri Lanka despite these unresolved allegations of war crimes at home. This is a pattern repeated around the world: Strapped for troops, the U.N. draws recruits from many countries with poor human rights records for its peacekeeping program, budgeted at nearly $8 billion this year.

An AP investigation last month found that in the last 12 years up to March, an estimated 2,000 allegations of sexual abuse or exploitation have been leveled at U.N. peacekeepers and personnel. That tally could change as U.N. officials update their records and reconcile data from old files.

Congolese troops also have been accused of war crimes during their own longstanding war. As peacekeepers in Central African Republic, at least 17 have been accused of sexual abuse and exploitation. The situation in Congo, meanwhile, is so complex the country is hosting a U.N. peacekeeping mission to manage its own violent conflict while also sending personnel on peacekeeping missions to other countries.

Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan understands the predicament. When fighting gripped Rwanda, he struggled to find peacekeepers to help stem what would later become a mass slaughter that killed an estimated 800,000 people.

“Sometimes the U.N. needs troops,” Annan told the AP earlier this month. “And they are so desperate that they accept troops that they will normally not accept if they had the choice.”

RAPE CAMPS

In the case of the Haiti sex ring, nine children told U.N. investigators of being lured into having sex in exchange for food and then being passed from soldier to soldier. One girl said she didn’t even have breasts when she first had sex with a peacekeeper at age 12. Over the course of three years, another child said he had sex with more than 100 Sri Lankan peacekeepers, averaging about four a day.

The allegations of sexual abuse by Sri Lankan peacekeepers echo those of the country’s generation-long civil war against the ethnic Tamil rebel group, known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which was fighting for an independent homeland in the island nation’s north and east. Eight years after the war ended, people are increasingly coming forward to give horrific accounts of camps where they say they were tortured and gang-raped.

One Tamil woman said in testimony shared with the AP that she was kidnapped by masked men in plain clothes and taken blindfolded and gagged to what she thought was an army camp.

“He removed all my clothes and forced me down on a mattress on the floor and tied both of my hands and legs apart with a nylon rope to iron bars on both sides of the mattress,” she said. She was held for about two months, and repeatedly raped.

She described another of her tormentors, who was brought into the room she shared with four other girls. “He was asked to take his pick,” she told the International Truth and Justice Project, which issued a 57-page report in March documenting the alleged torture or rape of 43 people, some as recently as December. “He looked around and chose me. And took me to another room and raped me.”

She identified him from a series of photographs of soldiers. The AP found that the man, an officer, went on to become a U.N. peacekeeper.

The woman asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution. The Sri Lankan army and the government declined to comment on the report.

Sri Lanka has routinely denied that its forces have been involved in widespread torture or abuse. In interviews with the AP, Sri Lankan officials pointed to their new peacekeeping role in Mali as evidence that their military is beyond reproach.

“If Sri Lanka is being invited to do this job, then that means all those issues have been dealt with in a way that everybody’s comfortable with,” Deputy Foreign Minister Harsha de Silva said.

That’s not exactly how the U.N. sees it.

Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, said the U.N. had few offers when it went looking for peacekeepers to protect convoys in Mali, one of the most dangerous U.N. missions in the world.

“The only ones who offered soldiers were the Sri Lankans,” he said.

Countries with better trained troops and human rights records have been reluctant to offer personnel for peacekeeping since 1993, when 18 American troops were killed in Somalia. The deaths were considered to be a key reason why the U.N. struggled to find help ahead of the Rwanda genocide in 1994.

Robert O. Blake, who was the U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka from 2006 to 2009, was one of many officials who pressed the Sri Lankan government for more transparency about the war crimes allegations.

“As a peacekeeper, you are there to keep the peace,” Blake said in an interview last month. “If they themselves are guilty of atrocities, clearly they are not suitable candidates for peacekeeping operations.”

WHAT CHILD SEX RING?

The mustachioed general Dias gently batted at mosquitoes swirling in the damp heat of his mother’s garden as he described the barrage of allegations against Sri Lanka’s soldiers as unfair. The fact that few soldiers are ever prosecuted, he said, shows that few have done any wrong.

“We can’t talk about an allegation. If there are facts, then let’s talk about it,” he said in the interview with the AP. “If a soldier has raped a woman, he should be court martialed, no doubt about it. But where is the evidence? Allegations are just allegations.”

Dias led an army division whose troops were accused of attacking civilians and bombing a church, a hospital and other humanitarian outposts in 2009, during the fierce last months of Sri Lanka’s civil war. He flatly denied the allegations, telling the AP that his 57th Division only targeted areas where rebels were firing on the troops.

Yet, evidence presented against Dias by two human rights groups in Europe led authorities to threaten a criminal investigation in 2011 while Dias was serving as a deputy ambassador to Germany, Switzerland and the Vatican. He was soon recalled to Sri Lanka, and two years later was sent to investigate the alleged rape by a Sri Lankan peacekeeper in 2013.

“A suspected war criminal is the wrong person to conduct an investigation into alleged crimes committed by a peacekeeper,” said Andreas Schuller with the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, a Berlin-based group that helped launch the complaint.

In 2015, the Sri Lankan government promoted Dias to army chief of staff — the country’s second-highest military post. He retired a few months later and now runs a private security business.

Dias was not involved in the Haiti child sex ring investigation in 2007, when U.N. and Sri Lankan officials interviewed nine child victims who identified photos of at least 134 soldiers as their abusers. But Dias disputed both the U.N. investigative report’s findings, as well as his own government’s.

Instead, he suggested that “an outside party” linked to the Tamil rebels was likely conspiring to damage Sri Lanka’s reputation.

“None of the cases was, to my knowledge, serious at all. And none of the soldiers was ever prosecuted,” Dias said. “We didn’t find any person guilty on those accusations, right?”

Yet following the report, Sri Lanka repatriated 114 of the troops. “I don’t think that was a good decision,” Dias said.

After months of stalling, Sri Lanka finally acknowledged in a statement to the AP that its military had acted against just 18 soldiers implicated in the sex ring, and said that the U.N. considered the matter closed.

The statement did not acknowledge that the U.N. investigation had implicated at least 134 men. It also contradicted another government statement four months earlier: that the army had dismissed one soldier, forced an officer to retire and imposed unspecified disciplinary action or punishments on 21 others “based on the gravity of the offenses committed,” according to an affidavit submitted to the U.N. Convention against Torture, a body that regularly monitors human rights conditions.

The U.N., which corroborated the findings against the peacekeepers, says it does not know what happened to the children abused in the sex ring.

A LEGAL BLACK HOLE

U.N. sexual abuse in Haiti and elsewhere has threatened to shrink financial contributions for peacekeeping, particularly from the United States, which provides nearly 30 percent of the budget.

After the AP published its investigation into the Haiti child sex ring last month, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley warned the U.N. Security Council that “countries that refuse to hold their soldiers accountable must recognize that this either stops or their troops will go home and their financial compensation will end.”

Part of the problem is that the U.N. lacks legal jurisdiction over its peacekeeping force, which now has more than 110,000 personnel, and instead relies on member states to prosecute crimes by their own troops.

That means that justice for victims is often elusive, while the U.N. and troop-contributing nations can dodge blame when things go wrong.

Philip Cunliffe, a lecturer at the University of Kent and editor-in-chief of the International Peacekeeping journal, called the situation “a product of mutual convenience.”

“Both sides are in a position where they can blame each other, which means that there’s no accountability ultimately,” Cunliffe said during an interview in the verdant commercial capital of Colombo.

Last year, the U.N. announced it would not be accepting any more Burundian police to the mission in the Central African Republic because of allegations of serious human rights violations in their homeland, and that the military deployment was under review.

Now, for the first time, the U.N. is undertaking expanded screening for individual Sri Lankan recruits, a process previously seen only on a much smaller scale for recruits from Burundi and Congo.

When plans for a peacekeeping deployment to Mali were announced last year, both the U.N. and Sri Lanka suggested that nearly 1,000 Sri Lankan soldiers be included. That number has since been whittled to 200, Sri Lankan Brigadier Jayantha Gunaratne told the AP.

The military said the sharp reduction was driven by a lack of necessary equipment. But a number of the troops also hadn’t passed the vetting, said Atul Khare, who heads the U.N. department that oversees the conduct and discipline unit. The enhanced vetting now looks at whether Sri Lankans recruits were attached to any battalions or contingents linked with alleged war crimes.

Khare declined to say how many had been refused.

“I would not want to comment on those who have been rejected, but yes — we have a strong policy of screening,” Khare said. “Does it mean that we succeed in the screening 100 percent of the time? No.”

“WE ARE SHOCKED”

In a jungle clearing about a two-hour drive from Colombo, a loudspeaker played the sounds of whooshing helicopter blades as dozens of peacekeeping recruits fanned out for a practice run, loading cargo into a small white sedan standing in for the chopper.

Instructors at the training camp, a two-hour drive from Colombo, said they have taken steps to address the risk of sexual abuse and exploitation since the child sex ring scandal in Haiti.

“That was a black mark for our U.N. deployment,” said Lt. Col. Tiral de Silva, the camp’s chief instructor.

But even de Silva said he was unaware of what actually had happened. “My understanding was it was the misbehavior of a few individuals.”

Tamil lawyer K.S. Ratnavale, who recently argued for a rare conviction of three soldiers for gang rape, said prosecuting members of Sri Lanka’s popular military is often impossible due to victim intimidation, a lack witnesses and poor evidence collection.

“We are shocked that the United Nations is encouraging these undisciplined and ruthless soldiers and deploying them in their peacekeeping force,” Ratnavale said.

The U.N. recently lauded Sri Lanka for its “best practices” after the country agreed last year, under pressure from the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations, to a onetime payment of $45,243 for a girl fathered by a Sri Lankan commander stationed in Haiti.

Sri Lankan Defense Secretary Karunasena Hettiarachchi, who signed the payment order last summer, told the AP he knew little about the paternity payment, or whether there had been any other such claims on Sri Lankan peacekeepers.

He said, “I think in general we don’t have a bad record of our peacekeepers.”

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