Women missing in discussion of peacekeeping cuts

By — April 4, 2017

In the Trump administration’s proposed mass slaying of any and all programs the United States financially supports in terms of human rights, one in particular is troubling for women around the world—and it’s an angle media have missed in their reporting.

In the proposed U.S. government budget, the United States’ contribution to peacekeeping would be capped at 25 percent, reported The Associated Press on March 17. Right now, the U.S. pays 28.5 percent, or about $2.2 billion a year. The global fallout from this cut would be dramatic, experts say. “Cutting 3.5 percent from that total could hasten drastic changes or even the end of several missions that are winding down,” AP wrote. The reduction would greatly impact affect missions like UNMISS in South Sudan, and MONUSCO, the world’s largest peacekeeping force at 22,000 members, in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

DRC, fairly or not, has been labeled “the rape capital of the world.” Cuts to the peacekeeping force would have a definite impact on the safety of women. While MONUSCO has been much maligned on and off for its failure to stop violence—such as a mass rape in 2010—it has also managed to do some good through its mandate, which includes “the protection of civilians, humanitarian personnel and human rights defenders under imminent threat of physical violence and to support the Government of the DRC in its stabilization and peace consolidation efforts.”

Peacekeepers deployed around the world are facing cuts as the Trump administration looks to slash its contribution to the UN. (UN Photo/Stuart Price)

So while MONUSCO’s track record has been called “a pretty mixed one” by multiple experts—in this case, Cristoph Vogel, a senior fellow at the Congo Research Group and a researcher at the University of Zürich in Switzerland—the peacekeeping presence has also “played a valuable role,” Vogel said. Overall, the force appears to be a necessary, albeit flawed, presence in a country whose own army is notorious for raping women.

In particular, right now, experts I’ve spoken to say it is a terrible time to cut troops to DRC, which has undergone serious election-related violence over the past year, as President Joseph Kabila has pushed off democratic elections that would throw him out of office. At this point, the elections are set for April 2018. The country requires a constant peacekeeping presence to prevent further killing of protesters before then. At the same time, as rape continues to haunt the country’s women, a continued presence of soldiers meant to keep the peace can, hopefully, only help. (Yes, peacekeepers themselves have raped women in various African countries, and the UN response has been abysmal, but we cannot deny that these crimes are committed by a minority of the men assigned to peacekeeping.)

France said at the end of March that severe cuts to MONUSCO would be “playing with fire.” (For a good run-down on what is going on with the possible cuts to MONUSCO, see this story by Colum Lynch and Ty McCormick.)

Turning attention to what is arguably the new “rape capital of the world,” South Sudan, how would peacekeeping cuts of the 16,000-strong group affect women?

South Sudan, where sexualized violence has been declared by the UN to have reached “epic proportions,” is also facing cuts in troops and personnel, as are most war zones at this point because of U.S. intentions. Various people working on the humanitarian crisis in South Sudan have told me that what look like “probably big cuts” in the country’s peacekeeping mission will be a nightmare for women, who are unable to leave UN-protected compounds where 230,000 civilians are taking shelter. Basically, you’re lucky if you’re a woman who leaves a UN compound and are not raped, a source who asked not to be named told me.

So what happens when there aren’t enough peacekeeping troops to protect women in the only places left in their country that are semi-safe for them? Right. It doesn’t bode well.

The White House is looking to slash the UN peacekeeping budget by more than $1 billion, according to Foreign Policy. “Everybody knows there’s fat at the UN,” said Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley. “Everybody knows there’s fat in the peacekeeping missions.”

Somebody needs to tell Haley—and her boss—that “fat” is a terrible descriptor for the missions that help protect women who are facing the kind of bodily decimation of rape that war brings in conflict after conflict.

The thousands and thousands of women raped in multiple countries in which peacekeepers operate deserve the presence of a robust force of men and women meant to keep them safe. They are human beings who deserve the continued efforts, flawed as they may be, of soldiers, police, and observers. They deserve a fighting chance to keep their bodies and souls intact from rape, the ultimate violation.