External Affairs

DNA Testing Once Nailed Indian Peacekeepers. The UN Now Wants to Make it Routine

What makes the initiative especially urgent is that 14 out of the 29 paternity claims made since January 2010 have been by minors, who said they were sexually abused by international soldiers on UN peacekeeping missions.

Members of the Indian battalion of the United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC) on route to Sake from North Kivu in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), as two young local boys salute the peacekeepers. 12/Sep/2007. UN Photo/Marie Frechon

File photo of members of the Indian battalion of the United Nations Organisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC) on route to Sake from North Kivu in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), as two young local boys salute the peacekeepers. 12/Sep/2007. UN Photo/Marie Frechon

New Delhi: A recent decision by the United Nations to conduct DNA tests on peacekeeping troops suspected of fathering babies while on international humanitarian missions in different parts of the world is being seen as a way of enforcing strict compliance with the norms governing their deployment – and of ensuring support and care for such “peacekeeper babies” when soldiers cross the line.

With about 125,000 peacekeepers deployed in 16 locations, mostly in Africa and the Middle East, several complaints of sexual abuse and exploitation had been received over the past decade from these troubled zones. India, too, has faced allegations, some of which were borne out by subsequent investigation.

As per the latest UN decision, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has been authorised to “require DNA and other tests to establish paternity”. The move seeks to ensure that peacekeepers are no longer able to just “father and abandon” children.

What makes the initiative especially urgent is that 14 out of the 29 paternity claims made since January 2010 have been by minors, who said they were sexually abused.

A report on sexual abuse and exploitation by peacekeepers by Zeid Raad al-Hussein, now the UN’s human rights chief and a former peacekeeper himself, had lamented the fact that many of these peacekeeper babies were left abandoned with mothers who were in a desperate financial situation.


The Indian angle

The initiative to conduct DNA tests on peacekeepers has been well-received in India, which sends the maximum number of troops on UN peacekeeping missions and has also had its fair share of trouble due to various misdemeanours.

Lieutenant-General (Retd) Satish Nambiar, who had headed the UN peacekeeping mission in the former Yugoslavia, and later retired as Deputy Chief of Army Staff, said that over the years,  several solutions have been attempted to improve the conduct of peacekeepers. “The policy was of zero tolerance and commissions were set up and reports submitted to curb sexual crimes by peacekeepers.”

On the way ahead, he said, “DNA profiling is one of the ways of trying to address the issue. It would act as a deterrent.”

However, he cautioned that all such steps should be taken with a “degree of sensitivity and with discussion with the stakeholders”. It should not be forgotten that the pride and honour of countries involved in peacekeeping is also at stake.

Nambiar shares the concern of the UN that countries contributing troops might be wary of allegations tarnishing their image, as many of the offences involve minors. Of the dozen paternity claims received last year alone, four were associated with the alleged sexual abuse of minors, a UN report had said.

But, bearing this in mind, he called for stringent punishment to the guilty. “The punishment for offences in such peacekeeping missions should be more severe than for similar crimes back home, as the soldiers are also ambassadors for their country when they serve abroad and there is no scope for any misdemeanour.”

On whether soldiers on peace missions have a more arduous job or deserve frequent home visits to prevent sexual crimes, Nambiar said even soldiers serving within the country work under hard conditions. “The issue is of good leadership, control and discipline. The odd aberrations should be dealt with severely.”

He said one of the subjects taught at the United Services Institution – which he headed and where in the year 2000 a Centre for United Nations Peacekeeping was set up with support from the Ministry of External Affairs — was dealing with stress. “We used to train the trainers so that the message reached out.”

The ultimate goal of any peacekeeping mission is the safety, security and well-being of the people it is intended to serve. Anything which goes against this principle needs to be handled with a tough hand.

India has in the past decade also had to face some embarrassing moments due to the conduct of its peacekeepers.

In 2012, An Indian Army Major and three other personnel were indicted by a Court of Inquiry ordered to investigate allegations of sexual exploitation of local women by Indian peacekeepers serving in Congo in 2007-08. Ironically, these incidents had taken place when former Indian Army chief General Bikram Singh, was heading the mission as a Lieutenant-General.

It was revealed that the DNA samples of one of the soldiers matched that of a child he had allegedly fathered during a  posting in Congo. While the soldier was indicted for sexual exploitation of local women, the other three were indicted for failure of command and control.

The accused men belonged to the 6 Sikh Regiment and the probe was ordered by the Indian Army in May 2011 after the UN alleged that India personnel were involved in sexual offences in Congo, where the mission was set up in 1999. India had contributed nearly 5,000 troops for that peacekeeping operation.

Similarly, in 2008, three Indian peacekeepers returning from Congo were held by the South African police after a woman complained that they had raped her. In 2010, an Indian major was found with a sex worker in a Congo hotel room.

Indian peacekeepers were in 2008 also accused of paying for sex with Congolese girls but these charges were rejected by the Indian Army. However, the presence in Congo of many children with distinctly Indian features not only calls for a detailed and truthful investigation, it also demands that India take responsibility for the support and care of those children who came into this world because of the improper, and possibly illegal conduct, of its peacekeepers.

The UN’s future plans

The UN last year began offering DNA collection protocol and testing kits to member countries. But for the time being, it is not toying with the idea of a DNA data bank which was suggested as the “most foolproof method” for tackling paternity claims by a UN authorised report.

For the time being, the UN is only asking member states if they will conduct the DNA test or whether they would want the UN to do it for them in case of paternity complaints. However, testing is not mandatory and only 20 per cent compliance has been reported thus far.

In his February report, Ban had said that “positive matches have established paternity in four instances and ruled it out in two; results remain pending in seven more instances.” But, pointing to the “hurdles” that remain, he had stated that “some of the alleged fathers refuse to be tested.”