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UN peacekeeping: blue banner for hope, or red flag for abuse?

For decades the ‘Blue Helmets’ have been sexually exploiting and abusing those they were sent to protect. The UN is complicit in creating an environment in which these abuses can flourish unfettered. 

“When ma asked me to go to the stream to wash plates, a peacekeeper asked me to take my clothes off so that he can take a picture. When I asked him to give me money he told me, no money for children, only biscuit.”

(cited in UNHCR & STC 2002)

As part of its commitment to maintaining international peace, the United Nations has tasked thousands of peacekeepers with protecting vulnerable populations affected by conflict. While the UN’s ‘Blue Helmets’ are often welcomed with relief and hope, they have also inflicted even greater harm, sexually exploiting and abusing those they were sent to protect.

Allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation (SEA) first surfaced in the context of peace operations in Cambodia and Somalia in the early 1990s. Ever since, peacekeepers of a wide variety of nationalities – including citizens of some of the most stable democracies in the western world – have been involved in SEA during peacekeeping missions in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Haiti, Sudan, Guinea and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Recent allegations have centred around the Central African Republic (CAR), where French peacekeepers sexually abused orphaned boys searching for food.

UN helmets and flak jackets. United Nations Photos via Flickr, some rights reserved.

The cancer in our system

On 13 August 2015, Ban Ki-moon declared his ‘distress and shame’ over the reports of SEA at the hands of UN forces. He reaffirmed his commitment to the organisation’s “zero-tolerance policy” on SEA (introduced in 2003) and referred to sexual abuse as a ‘cancer in our system’ requiring radical treatment.

Acute underreporting of SEA is endemic due to fear of stigmatisation, economic dependency, and the lack of an investigatory apparatus. In 2006, after years of turning a blind eye to sexual crimes committed by UN forces, the organisation began recording allegations of SEA. Even this publically available but limited data makes clear that SEA is not a rare or isolated matter: more than 200 allegations were made under MONUC/MONUSCO alone. Knowing that the real figures are likely to be much higher, it is clear such abuse cannot be attributed to the random acts of a few rogue individuals. However, instead of critically assessing its own role in providing an environment in which these sexual crimes can flourish, the UN has overwhelmingly directed its resources at diverting attention away from fundamental questions about its peacekeepers.

Unequal power-relations and limited supervision

The immense purchasing power of the Blue Helmets in comparison to the local population in countries ravaged by war contributes to sexual exploitation. The daily allowance of most peacekeepers often exceeds the per capita annual income in the host country. During their mission in the DRC peacekeepers received around $138 per day in Mission Support Allowance, which is between 500 and 1000 times the average capita income of the Congolese population. With sex costing as little as $1-3 per encounter, it is easy to see how peacekeepers’ purchasing power translates into sexual exploitation.

Another factor is the staff chosen by the UN for peacekeeping. Military personnel form the biggest part of peace operations. It is commonly stated that soldiers of all ranks have almost always raped during wartime and that the presence of the military has seriously fuelled the sex industry. It should come as no surprise that superior officers find it difficult to thwart behaviour considered commonplace in other settings, where soldiers are not held to the same standards as Blue Helmets.

Limited supervision, loose control-structures and numerous cases of collusion between commanders and subordinates have considerably contributed to opportunities for sexual misconduct by UN peacekeepers. According to the Save the Children, during UNMIL ‘the lack of senior and international staff presence in the camps was reportedly allowing junior agency staff to behave with impunity’. 

Human Rights Watch reported that in Somalia victims of SEA entered AMISOM soldiers’ accommodation through ‘official and guarded gates’, and some were even given official badges enabling easier entrance to the facilities. These practices suggest that SEA were tolerated and even organised by senior officials.

Immunity and impunity

The vast majority of SEA allegations have been made against members of national contingents, which have absolute immunity in the host jurisdiction. In theory, the Blue Helmets enjoy functional immunity: they are immune to prosecution for crimes committed whilst on duty. Crimes falling outside their official functions - such as sexual abuse - are technically subject to the criminal and disciplinary jurisdiction of their sending nations. In practice, however, peacekeepers who “go rogue” have little to fear.

The UN does not publish details of reported attacks, or the names or nationalities of perpetrators, mainly to avoid embarrassing countries who send troops for peacekeeping since the UN, without its own standing army, is wholly dependent on these contributions. In the rare cases that (often incomplete) information on peacekeepers’ misconduct is made available to the sending nation, Member States have overwhelmingly allowed most perpetrators to go unpunished or have handed out extremely lenient sentences. To name but one example, Amnesty International criticised the conviction of three UN peacekeepers in Haiti was a ‘travesty of justice’. They were found guilty of sexually assaulting a 14-year-old boy and were each sentenced to one year in prison. To date however, even this example is a rare exception and the overall number of peacekeepers officially charged and punished for sexual abuse and exploitation remains inconsequential.

Serious disconnect between words and actions

The UN is plagued by a serious contradiction between its discourse on a zero-tolerance policy and its actions when tackling the problem amongst its ranks. The UN continues to issue condoms to peacekeepers to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS - while laudable, such a gesture flies in the face of the UN’s absolute prohibition on sexual contact during the mission. Each year, new accounts of the UN covering up scandals emerge: it seems the UN has zero-tolerance for whistleblowing, rather than for sexual abuse.

In April 2015, concerns were raised about the way allegations of misconduct by UN peacekeepers were handled. Anders Kompass leaked confidential documents to the French authorities detailing the sexual abuse and rape of abandoned orphans in the CAR by French peacekeepers. Instead of implementing a zero-impunity scheme to apprehend the perpetrators, the UN actually suspended Kompass from his post as director of field operations. The UN’s Paula Donovan, co-director of Aids Free World, told The Guardian: “The regular sex abuse by peacekeeping personnel uncovered here and the United Nations’ appalling disregard for victims are stomach-turning, but the awful truth is that this isn’t uncommon. The UN’s instinctive response to sexual violence in its ranks [is to] ignore, deny, cover up, dissemble.”

Just months later in July 2015, yet another case of the UN’s failure to take appropriate action in the face of SEA surfaced. According to a strictly confidential report leaked to The Guardian, the UN discovered that members of the Russian Aviation Company UTair had drugged, raped and sexually tortured a teenage girl before dumping her naked and unconscious at a helicopter base in 2010. The incident was held to be ‘indicative of a wider culture of SEA at the company’. Copies of the report have allegedly been circulated among top UN staff, including the NY office of the Secretary-General. Upon learning about the incident, the UN did not end its contractual relationship with UTair, as its zero-tolerance discourse would suggest. Instead, it actually extended its billion-dollar contract with UTair for missions in Lebanon, Western Sahara, the DRC, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Somalia and Mali.

Rather than engaging with these problems, the UN has repeatedly ignored the systemic nature of SEA among its peacekeepers. It refuses to recognise its own role in creating an environment of impunity, choosing to simply reiterate its hollow discourse on zero-tolerance. The organisation’s continued failure to deal with the problem head-on undermines the very foundations of peace operations and will ultimately bring the whole notion of peacekeeping closer to crisis.


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