A UN Whitewash?

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The International Herald Tribune

A UN Whitewash?

by
Matthias Basanisi

The United Nations, facing criticism that it has failed to police itself, has hit back in recent days. Press officers insist that there is no problem. Based on my own experience, I disagree.

The BBC and Human Rights Watch have both brought forward evidence that the United Nations covered up evidence of gold smuggling and arms trafficking by its peacekeepers in Congo. The peacekeepers are said to have had illegal dealings with one of the most murderous militias in eastern Congo, where millions have died in one of the bloodiest, yet least visible, conflicts in the world.

Last month, Inga-Britt Ahlenius, the head of the Office of Internal Oversight Services at the United Nations, told the BBC that her investigators drew the right conclusions based on the evidence they found: that there was little that warranted prosecution or further investigation.

I wish that were true. I was the investigator in charge of the UN team that in 2006 looked into allegations of abuses by Pakistani peacekeepers in Congo and found them credible. But the investigation was taken away from my team after we resisted what we saw as attempts to influence the outcome.

My fellow team members and I were appalled to see that the oversight office's final report was little short of a whitewash.

The reports we submitted to the office's senior management in 2006 included credible information from witnesses confirming illegal deals between Pakistani peacekeepers and warlords from the Front for National Integration, an ethnic militia group notorious for its cruelty even in such a brutal war.

We found corroborative information that senior officers of the Pakistani contingent secretly returned seized weapons to two warlords in exchange for gold, and that the Pakistani peacekeepers tipped off two warlords about plans by the UN peacekeeping force and the Congolese Army to arrest them. And yet, much of the evidence we uncovered was excluded from the final report released last summer, including corroboration from the warlords themselves.

The cover-up doesn't stop there. I resigned from the Office of Internal Oversight Services in May 2007 and former colleagues of mine who recently investigated similar allegations against Indian peacekeepers in Congo are concerned that some of their most serious findings will also be ignored and not investigated further.

Two outside management reports have been critical of the oversight office and its work. Ahlenius, who has been in charge of the office since 2005, says that she agrees with those criticisms. Secretiveness, she told The Washington Post earlier this month, "serves us extremely poorly."

Indeed. So why does it continue under her watch?

The oversight office hires experienced investigators. Those investigators are required to respect the highest standards of integrity and professionalism. And yet the office has done little to ensure that management lives up to its own standards. One likely reason for the weakened reports is that Pakistan and India are the largest contributors of troops to United Nations peacekeeping missions and no one wants to offend them.

I met and worked with many of these peacekeepers and found the majority of them to be professional soldiers willing to risk their lives to bring peace to countries like Congo. But if peacekeepers of any nationality are found to have committed serious crimes, the United Nations must say so. The organization cannot close its eyes and ears to evidence of misconduct. Such behavior undermines peacekeeping efforts everywhere.

It would be shocking to think that the United Nations' own investigative body is reluctant to act on evidence of cooperation between peacekeepers and alleged war criminals. At stake is not just how the international organization deals with crimes by peacekeepers in the eastern Congo, serious though that is, but also the ability of the United Nations to tell the truth.

Matthias Basanisi was the deputy chief investigator with the United Nations Office of Internal Oversight Services in Congo from 2005 to 2007.

Copyright © 2008 the International Herald Tribune

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