OTTAWA – With the Trudeau Liberals pledging a return to peacekeeping, Canada is being urged to play a leading role in stamping out what is being described as rampant sexual abuse by United Nations peacekeepers.
Stephen Lewis, a former Canadian ambassador to the UN, is one of the leaders of an international coalition for the creation of an independent management board to oversee UN peacekeeping.
Lewis, co-chair of the Code Blue coalition, wants Canada to lead the charge in UN corridors to wrestle control of peacekeeping away from the UN and place it with an independent board, similar to a bankruptcy trustee.
Lewis and others are accusing top UN brass of turning a blind eye to systemic sexual abuse by peacekeepers.
The coalition has been calling for UN reform following the scandal that erupted last year in the Central African Republic with child sex abuse allegations against French soldiers involving boys as young as nine.
Another Canadian, retired Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps, co-authored a report released last month that accused the UN of a “gross institutional failure” because of how it responded to the abuse allegations.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon commissioned Deschamps’s report last year after Lewis’s organization raised concerns about the scandal.
Lewis said the Canadian government can lead a diplomatic push to clean up peacekeeping because Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wants Canada to play a bigger role in future missions, while re-engaging more broadly with the UN.
“I think that Canada has a very considerable role to play in making certain that sexual exploitation and abuse is high on the agenda of what we do around peacekeeping hereafter.”
Canada has already played a lead role behind the scenes to press Ban to appoint Deschamps and her panel to review the allegations, said Lewis.
But with Canada’s new UN ambassador assuming his post in New York in April, and the Liberal government’s renewed focus on multilateralism, “there can be a new tone set on the part of Canada,” said Lewis.
The coalition is pressing the UN to lift the blanket immunity that protects its diplomats because it says many civilian employees know about peacekeeping abuses, but have done nothing to stop it.
Paula Donovan, the American women’s rights activist who is Lewis’s co-chair, said Canada has a vested interest in cleaning up peacekeeping because “they essentially invented peacekeeping, and I think many Canadians feel proudly attached to that legacy.”
Backed by U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower, former external affairs minister Lester Pearson proposed the first UN peacekeeping mission in 1956 to help defuse the Suez Crisis — for which he received the Nobel Peace Prize a year later.
In recent decades, however, Canada’s contribution to UN peacekeeping has dwindled to a few dozen troops.
Canada is still one of the top 10 financial supporters of UN peacekeeping missions, but Trudeau has said he wants to see Canadian troops playing a more active role in future missions.
Trudeau has said he expects Canada can contribute specialized leadership, such as engineers, or leverage the bilingualism of senior officers instead of contributing large numbers of infantry troops.
Developing countries such as Bangladesh, India and Pakistan have become the leading contributors of troops to peacekeeping missions since the passing of Canada’s heyday in the 1990s.