When those meant to keep the peace commit sexualized violence

By — May 25, 2012

A young girl walks a short distance to visit her relatives in Haiti. But she doesn’t get far before men start harassing her, asking her to come with them. Their intentions are not even thinly disguised, and this girl is just one of their many targets.

“They do this with all of us young girls,” she says. “I have a few friends that have gone to bed with them. Some of them are asked to give them a lesbian show, and they are paid for that.”  

But what may be surprising is exactly who these men are. The unnamed girl’s quote is from a 2008 report by the U.K.-based nonprofit organization Save the Children on sexualized violence toward children in conflict zones. The men she mentions are from an international peacekeeping force more than 10,000-strong that has been in her country since 2004: the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti. Perhaps not surprising is that Haiti is not the only place where such propositions and sexual assaults are taking place. The misconduct of peacekeeping forces in conflict zones has dogged the UN since the inception of the peacekeeping program more than 50 years ago.  

Peacekeeping forces from the African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID) patrol Darfur’s Abu Shouk internally displaced persons camp.

As the number of missions and peacekeepers has grown, widespread accounts of inappropriate behavior and sexual exploitation by peacekeepers have been reported around the world, notably in Haiti, Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Bosnia, Cambodia, East Timor, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s, UN peacekeepers helped support sex trafficking as customers of brothels relying on forced prostitution, according to Amnesty International.  

Save the Children found evidence that UN peacekeepers had raped young girls in the Ivory Coast, southern Sudan, and Haiti. Cornell constitutional law scholar Muna Ndulo recounted cases of UN peacekeepers fathering and subsequently abandoning children at the end of their deployment. Ndulo quotes staggering numbers in his report: that UN peacekeepers have fathered an estimated 24,500 babies in Cambodia and 6,600 in Liberia.  

In addition to supporting prostitution and raping women during wartime, UN peacekeepers have been accused of standing by when sexualized violence is used as a war tactic by combatants. In 2010, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Atul Khare reported to the UN Security Council that UN Peacekeeping had “failed” to protect women and children from rapes in eastern DRC. Approximately 300 rapes had been reported in a village near the UN Peacekeeper’s camp in just a four-day period.  

Cases of sexual abuse by peacekeepers over time may have tarnished the organization’s work, but it wasn’t until there was widespread reporting of peacekeeping failures—including numerous reports of rapes and prostitution during the Bosnian war—that the UN sought to change the system. In response, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called on a group of experts to evaluate peacekeeping operations and recommend institutional changes to help prevent abuses by peacekeepers.  

Despite enacting changes that improved oversight, abuses continued, most notably in the Congo—where peacekeepers were reportedly paying young girls food for sex in 2005. The UN responded by releasing yet another report that placed a heavier emphasis on pre-deployment conduct and discipline, and making training on preventing sexual exploitation in the field mandatory. (Multiple attempts by Women Under Siege to contact UN Peacekeeping for comment went unanswered.)  

Subsequent reform documents have been released yearly, but the cases continue. While the emphasis on reform has shown UN Peacekeeping’s awareness of its troops’ sexual misconduct, the structure of UN peacekeeping allows abuses to persist. In 2011, the United Nations reported 74 allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse by UN peacekeepers. While this is down from 357 cases in 2006, the UN is limited in how it can prevent and prosecute these allegations due to the organization’s size and member state-centric operating system.  

Much of the problem lies in the basic structure of UN Peacekeeping, which echoes the problematic structure of the UN—the organization’s autonomy is limited as member states provide the mandate for peacekeeping actions as well as contribute personnel for missions. UN peacekeepers come from nearly 120 countries and bring with them their cultures, attitudes, and experiences on assignment. As they are recruited out of their national defense forces, these military personnel are “first and foremost members of their own national armies,” and only contracted to the UN. Currently, UN Peacekeeping is engaged in 16 missions worldwide, utilizing a force of more than 120,000. Within that force, there is turnover of 300,000 peacekeeping troops annually, contributing to a transient culture with few repercussions for poor conduct, according to activists.  

As peacekeepers are under the control and direct leadership of their home military forces, the United Nations does not actually have that much power to enforce their behavior once they are on the ground.  

While UN Peacekeeping has a zero tolerance clause of sexual abuses within its code of conduct, it is only enforceable if the military command of the member state country taking part in the operation chooses to enforce it. Peacekeepers are protected from prosecution of sexual abuses as troops are traditionally granted jurisdictional immunity through Status of Forces Agreements in the countries where they operate. These agreements give peacekeepers absolute immunity within host countries and give exclusive jurisdiction to the peacekeeper’s nation of origin. If abuses occur, peacekeepers are held accountable to the rules and regulations of their country’s armed forces, not according the to the laws of the land where they serve. Trials are not held in civilian courts, but in military courts most often in the peacekeeper’s home country, not where the abuse occurred. This is a clear path to immunity from punishment, as men are tried by their peers in a context in which impartiality is questionable.

The lack of accountability inherent in this structure has contributed to poor reporting of sexual abuse as well as inconsistent prosecution of peacekeepers taking part in abuse.  

In January, five Uruguayan peacekeepers accused of the 2011 rape of a Haitian teenager were let off on a technicality in a Uruguayan courtroom, despite video evidence of the rape having taken place. In March, two UN peacekeepers from Pakistan were found guilty of raping a 14-year-old boy in Haiti. They were sentenced to just a year of prison in their home country. Overall, efforts at reform have been only Band-Aid fixes to systemic problems. Academics and international human rights groups like Amnesty International and Save the Children have called for greater transparency, improvements to incident reporting and for the UN and its member states to reevaluate the conditions of jurisdictional immunity for peacekeepers committing human rights abuses in the communities they serve. Promising developments like the prioritization of diversifying peacekeeping forces, hiring female peacekeepers, and trying abuses in the country in which they are committed are steps forward. But the UN and its member states have much further to go to toward addressing the systemic problems that allow peacekeeping forces to commit and be complicit in sexual abuse in the world’s most vulnerable communities.  

So far this year, the UN has reported 22 allegations of sexual abuse—at least 10 of which were made against military or police personnel—and an unknown number of cases have gone unreported.  

Natalie Novick is pursuing a PhD in Sociology at the University of California, San Diego. Her research examines the outcomes of cultural inequalities influencing women's representation in government, foreign affairs, and peacekeeping. Her work has previously appeared in Broad Recognition. She is on Twitter at @genderpolitics.