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Empty words

Canada said it’s committed to holding its citizens accountable for sex crimes committed while deployed on UN peacekeeping operations. It’s failing.

By: /
19 November, 2021
Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, pictured here while foreign minister, at a 2019 event in Toronto. Kay Nietfeld/picture alliance via Getty Images

A “gap” in the Criminal Code means Canadian police are immune from prosecution for crimes committed while deployed as UN peacekeepers. Global Affairs Canada (GAC) has been aware of this for years. In 2019, following revelations six police officers had evaded justice for sexual crimes committed while serving in Haiti, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland promised to institute a framework for ensuring future accountability. Two years later, the gap remains and criminal accountability is impossible. It is past time for Prime Minister Trudeau to prioritize this issue and send a clear message that Canada is the champion of human rights and the rule of law he says it is.

While working for the UN, all personnel (civilians, police and military) are protected from prosecution by the host state. Ensuring accountability is therefore the dual responsibility of the UN and the contributing state. Following allegations of wrongdoing by police or civilian personnel, the UN notifies the contributing state and investigates. If the allegations are substantiated, the UN then repatriates the accused personnel and their home state assumes responsibility for imposing disciplinary measures and, where possible, initiating criminal proceedings.

The Criminal Code of Canada and the National Defence Act cover crimes committed abroad — including on attachment to UN peacekeeping operations — by military personnel or civilians employed under the Public Service Employment Act (PSEA). There are no provisions covering police officers or civilian personnel not employed by the federal public service. This means the Government of Canada lacks the legal capacity to prosecute police or non-PSEA-employed civilians for crimes they commit while serving as part of UN peacekeeping missions.

In 2019, the CBC obtained internal documents from GAC highlighting what GAC itself described as a “gap” in the Criminal Code and revealing Canada’s repeated failures to cooperate with UN-led investigations.

The UN had investigated six Canadian police officers who were part of its mission in Haiti. One was repatriated after he allegedly solicited the services of a local sex worker and threatened her with his UN-issued firearm. Four others allegedly abused or were engaged in exploitative relations with local women. Two of those four fathered children with Haitian women. The alleged actions of the sixth officer are unclear.

One of these officers left the country before the UN could complete its investigation. Once he returned to Canada, the government could not compel him to participate further. Of the five remaining officers, two avoided sanctions by retiring early. The most severe punishment anyone received was a nine-day suspension.

Asked to comment on these revelations in 2019, Freeland told the CBC: “It is totally unacceptable for [officers] to harm the people who they are sent to protect. And it is important for us to be sure that we have a framework here in Canada that allows us to deal with any offenses committed outside the country.”

In an email, a GAC spokesperson Grantly Franklin pointed to the creation within GAC of a “Prevention of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (PSEA) Unit … which leads on coordination of PSEA efforts in Canada’s international initiatives across the department.”

The RCMP prohibits sexual relations between deployed personnel and members of the local population, Franklin added. Police are reminded of this during pre-deployment training and must sign a letter committing to abide by the policy.

Strengthening preventative measures and educating personnel pre-deployment is important but does not ensure accountability once crimes have been committed.

Franklin said repatriated police are “subject to disciplinary or conduct proceedings and, where warranted, criminal investigation.” But criminal investigation and prosecution can only occur where Canada has the legal authority to assume jurisdiction. Section 7 of the Criminal Code covers sexual offences against children but not adults. Disciplinary measures are usually light and are unlikely to deter future sexual misconduct.

In other words, Canada’s “framework” for peacekeeper accountability hasn’t changed since Freeland said Canada needed a more effective one in 2019.

Other countries such as Japan and Norway have extended their jurisdiction to cover all their citizens serving as peacekeepers, but no country has enacted domestic legislation committing itself to investigating and prosecuting personnel. Contributing countries instead sign memorandums of understanding promising to ensure accountability for their personnel, but the UN lacks the means to enforce these agreements.

There is no international, binding mechanism forcing states to investigate or prosecute their peacekeepers. This helps to explain why, despite the UN’s declared zero-tolerance policy on sexual exploitation and abuse, and the more than 2,000 allegations lodged since the 1990s, criminal prosecution has been exceedingly rare, and states ​​frequently fail to even respond to UN requests for information or updates regarding investigations.

“Canada generally only assumes extraterritorial jurisdiction over criminal offences for the protection of its national security interests or where required by its international treaty obligations, such as torture, war crimes and child sexual exploitation offences,” Ian McLeod, a spokesperson for the Department of Justice, said in an email. 

Victims of sexual abuse committed by Canadian police on UN missions have little chance of seeing justice.”

This isn’t enough. It means that victims of sexual abuse committed by Canadian police on UN missions have little chance of seeing justice.

The Liberals should therefore draft legislation that covers all non-military (civilian and police) Canadian personnel attached to UN missions and commits the federal government, the RCMP and participating police forces to cooperate fully with UN-led investigations. It would outline the responsibilities of each actor and the processes to be followed once any allegation is made, including transparent communication with the UN and the Canadian public. Once passed, the Criminal Code should be amended to cover all personnel deployed under this legislation.

By taking this step, the Liberals would set a precedent that other states might replicate, and it would send a clear message that Canada stands by its promises and is committed to fighting for human rights and the rule of law.

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