Lawyers representing 10 women in Haiti plan to pursue child support cases through civil action, but say they need the UN’s assistance to proceed because most of the men involved are no longer in the country.
Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI), a legal firm in Haiti, wrote to the UN in August requesting the results of DNA tests administered to some of the women. Mario Joseph, managing attorney at BAI, said the letter, sent through Haiti’s foreign ministry, has been met with silence.
“[Life for the women] is really terrible,” said Joseph. “We’ve got more than six who live in the south of Haiti; Hurricane Matthew destroyed the south. Some of them don’t have any housing, they tried to go to relatives and they begged to get food for the baby.”
The UN stabilisation mission in Haiti (Minustah) said in a statement that it is in contact with the foreign affairs ministry regarding the cases and is awaiting further details in relation to one of the women.
The statement said: “Minustah, through its conduct and discipline unit, continues to maintain regular contact with the victims and address their requests. For example, the mission is currently liaising with several UN agencies, funds and programmes to find a shelter solution for one of the victims represented by the lawyer.
“Where a child has been born as a result of sexual exploitation and abuse by United Nations or related personnel, the UN will work to facilitate the pursuit of claims of paternity and child support.”
The group of mothers includes a woman who was 16 at the time of pregnancy – two years below the legal age of consent in Haiti. The soldier responsible, who was repatriated to Uruguay, initially sent $350 (£273) when the mother first gave birth, but has since stopped sending assistance. The UN carried out a DNA test in February 2014 but has not passed the results to the mother, according to her lawyers.
“These relationships occurred often on a transactional basis in a position of huge power inequality, where women were desperate for some kind of financial assistance for themselves and their families,” said Sienna Merope-Synge, an attorney at Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, a human rights group and BAI’s sister organisation.
One of the women fell pregnant after an alleged rape, which was reported to the conduct and discipline unit of the UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti.
UN cooperation is crucial if the cases are to have any impact on the women involved, said Merope-Synge. “Because the fathers are no longer in Haiti, there [would be] a need to serve them with the results … and also, if necessary, enforce the judgment in another court or have their government or the UN assume that liability somehow. This is untested waters.”
The cases are likely to be the tip of the iceberg, said Merope-Synge, though many women will be reluctant to come forward.
The UN announced last week that it would end its controversial peacekeeping mission in Haiti by October, replacing it with a smaller police force. The 13-year mission has been dogged by controversy, including allegations of sexual abuse and the introduction of cholera to the island. In December the UN finally admitted that its peacekeepers were responsible for introducing the disease, which is estimated to have killed 10,000 people.
Last week, further reports of sexual abuse emerged with claims that at least 134 Sri Lankan peacekeepers exploited nine children in a sex ring from 2004 to 2007. The reports alleged that 114 peacekeepers were sent home but no one was ever imprisoned.
Madeleine Rees, secretary general of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, said that, without robust policies, UN resolutions promising to protect women remain little more than a wishlist.
“Is it better to have peacekeepers there who are engaging in this sort of abuse?” said Rees. “What kind of peace are they keeping? They certainly aren’t protecting the people they’re supposed to be protecting.
“We’re advocating for there to be tribunals in countries where there are peacekeeping missions, not just for sexual exploitation but for all the other things that go on.”
Akshaya Kumar, deputy UN director at Human Rights Watch, said that while the UN has made progress in how it deals with new reports of sexual abuse, there is a danger that historic cases like those in Haiti may be forgotten.
“The UN has become much better at being public and transparent about tracking newly reported cases,” said Kumar, “but that transparency doesn’t go back far enough to address all of the Haiti victims.
“The UN needs to really dig deeper into the past and ensure those who face the bitter legacy of this mission aren’t short-changed as things move forward.
“Even if you shut down missions your obligations to the people affected by them negatively remain.”
Any future UN presence in Haiti should involve a victims’ rights advocate, added Kumar.
In February, the UN secretary general, António Guterres, proposed appointing a victims’ rights advocate.