One man’s struggle to teach UN forces how to stop rape

By — November 5, 2012

Patrick Cammaert is often quoted as saying that it is now more dangerous to be a woman than it is to be a soldier in war. But perhaps he should be quoted more widely on another startling fact: that UN peacekeepers the world over turn away when they witness rape.

A retired major general from the Netherlands and the former division commander of UN forces in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo—he was appointed in 2005 as head of MONUC, which later became MONUSCO—Cammaert shared this reality with me when we spoke following a UN meeting in September. While of course not all UN soldiers ignore sexualized violence, just as not all UN soldiers commit sexualized violence themselves, Cammaert made it clear that an overwhelming number of blue helmets have no idea how to deal with witnessing rape.

And so, he said, they don’t.

Cammaert speaks at a high-level UN event on preventing sexualized violence in conflict, on September 25. Next to him is Nobel Laureate Leymah Gbowee. (UN Women/Catianne Tijerina)

“If peacekeepers are not prepared during their pre-deployment training for action to prevent and stop sexual violence, then when they are confronted with it, they don’t know exactly what to do,” Cammaert explained in a follow-up interview. “And then they freeze and they pretend not to see it, or they think that they should not intervene, or they come from a background where beating up women is more acceptable than in other cultures,” he said. Others simply don’t believe that their UN mandate allows them to step in.

If it seems alarming that those trained by the UN to work in hot spots such as Sudan and DRC (where a woman is reportedly raped almost once every minute) “freeze” when confronted with rape, you’re not alone. Cammaert is indignant. He has heard from both senior and junior commanders that their soldiers simply don’t think sexualized violence falls within their purview.

Undoubtedly, he said, they’re wrong.

“When you have a mandate to protect civilians from the immediate threat of violence, then sexual violence is part of it.” It is by no means a “hard” interpretation, he told me, his tone diplomatic but frustrated. In 2008, after hearing the confusion among his peers on an issue he found quite clear, Cammaert began training peacekeepers directly to stop rape.

He took real cases of sexualized violence from areas with UN forces and then formulated questions for the trainees in his audience. He developed a four- or five-minute video showing DRC, Ivory Coast, and Haiti, “so that the audience, before they get those questions, have an idea of what the mission looked like, and they can hear survivors tell their stories,” he said.

A minutes-long video clip followed by some questions may not seem like the most cutting-edge technique to try to stop something as complex as rape in warzone. But for troops being deployed by the UN to places with soaring rates of rape, Cammaert’s training is often their first interaction with the subject.

Once the peacekeepers watch a video of rape survivors describing their ordeals, “they can hear it, they can sniff it, they can feel emotion about it,” Cammaert said. The exposure, he hopes, propels them to intervene in future scenarios.

Cammaert said he also trains peacekeepers to look out for warning signs, so that rape is not just something they stumble onto but something they can actually prevent. He gave an example: “If you hear from female committees that the females are going from their IDP camps back to their village to work in the fields, but they still sleep in the forest,” he said, something is amiss. “You have to dig deeper [and ask]: ‘Why are you afraid?’” Once peacekeepers ask women what they’re afraid of—what’s causing them to stay away from their homes—they’ll usually discover that there have been men roaming near the village, or other conditions that the women thought unsafe. Then, Cammaert said, peacekeepers can gather more information and send troops over to preempt attacks.

Until they’re trained, these peacekeepers don’t always realize that they must actively search for signs of future violence, Cammaert said—especially if they’ve been told they’ll be far from conflict. When a member country decides to lend engineers to UN efforts, for instance, “the feeling is that engineers are not necessary on the frontlines.” But, Cammaert said, there’s always Murphy’s Law; often, it’s an unsuspecting engineer that ends up witnessing sexualized violence. It doesn’t matter that it’s not within his technical job description back home: Once he’s part of the peacekeeping force, he must be proactive to stop rape.

“If you have not been told during your pre-deployment training, you might be shocked that you are facing these types of situations,” he said. “During my training, I had to work hard to convince these people that this is what is required of you and you do not have two days to think about it, but two seconds to think about it.”

If you freeze instead of helping, he tells the trainees, “then you have someone dead or gang rape right under your nose, and then before you know it, you see newspaper reports.” (You don’t want to be the person behind a story like “UN Peacekeeper Witnessed but Ignored Rape,” he tells them.)

When I asked whether his trainings are being measured for effectiveness, Cammaert said that nothing has been methodologically tested thus far but that trainee behavior will be analyzed in some unspecified way starting in 2013. He said that he also hopes the training program will move out of UN Women, where it’s currently housed, and into mainstream UN activities. He is clear when he speaks about rape in conflict that it should concern all genders. This is not just a “women’s issue,” Cammaert said. “This is a security issue.”