by Rob Harding
TW: Sexual assault, rape, genocide.
Founded in 1948, the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations is intended to ‘help countries torn by conflict to create the conditions for lasting peace.’ Their role is not as direct military intervention during conflicts; instead, they observe ongoing peace processes and stop ceasefires and peace treaties from collapsing back into armed conflict, while also working to help refugees and the displaced. Peacekeepers aren’t just soldiers- they also employ aid workers, diplomats, medics, engineers and negotiators. They’re the ‘world’s army’, with their distinctive blue helmets and white-painted vehicles, and in their prime they’ve stood up to global superpowers and stabilised seemingly irredeemable trouble spots.
Despite very public failures like the disastrous Somalia mission and the failed attempts to prevent genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda, the United Nations continues to operate peacekeeping missions around the world. They work to protect and improve the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in the world – those living in some of the world’s worst war zones.
Unfortunately, that’s the problem.
Peacekeepers protect an extremely vulnerable population, and they don’t always have that population’s best interests in mind. Allegations of sexual abuse being committed by peacekeepers against civilians, frequently in terms of ‘transactional sex’, have dogged the organisation for two decades, with allegations dating back decades and involving both military and civilian personnel. UN personnel are alleged to have engaged in transactional sex, trading sexual favours for luxury items, electronics or even necessities like hygiene products and food. The UN mission in Mozambique was the first to be properly criticised- a 1996 study by former first lady of Mozambique Graça Machel stated that the arrival of peacekeeping troops co-incided with a rise in child prostitution in six of twelve cases. During the KFOR mission in Kosovo in 2004 the UN’s arrival fuelled and was connected to sex-trafficking, and the article goes on to allege dozens of incidents across the UN’s various missions. There is an extensive comparison of incidents involving peacekeepers over on Wikipedia, and while no timeline is given, it lists around 2,260 incidents of sexual assault alone across twelve missions from the Lebanon taskforce’s formation in 1978 to the present day, with many more no doubt unreported and undocumented.
Peacekeepers protect an extremely vulnerable population, and they don’t always have that population’s best interests in mind.
Unfortunately, the conditions of a peacekeeping operation create an ideal environment for this kind of abuse. The countries involved tend to be poor at best, either in general or due to conflicts and national disasters. Peacekeepers bring much-desired hard currency, often in pounds, euros or particularly US dollars, and have access to steady supplies of food and luxury items that the locals might not. They’re also under a lot of pressure- regularly under fire or dealing with hostile situations and observing the worst excesses of civil wars and natural disasters- and empowered by their status as armed and legally untouchable foreigners. The UN doesn’t even have a right to conduct background checks on soldiers contributed to its missions, and contributing nations don’t have any incentive to check them either, as prosecutions are rare and accusations rarely publicised. Is it any wonder that this combination of circumstances produces crime and corruption?
Of course, the United Nations is trying to do something about this. In 2003, Kofi Annan, then Secretary-general, implemented a ‘zero-tolerance’ policy on the subject, and then noted in 2006 that ‘My message of zero tolerance has still not got through to those who need to hear it- from managers on the ground to all our other personnel.’ That article also mentions the fates of those peacekeepers who’d been investigated- summary dismissals, ‘repatriations and rotations home on disciplinary grounds.’ What happens then? Up to the nation that employs those personnel.
And this is a big problem. The question of what happens to those accused of crimes like these has not been answered, and involves a nightmare of international law and national prejudice. As this excellent Al Jazeera video explains, the question of who has the authority to punish UN employees is down to several factors: the terms of the UN ‘Status of Forces’ agreement with the host country, the state of the host country itself (who do they side with in a civil war? What about tribal and ethnic conflicts?) and the legal competence of the nation who contributed the soldier or worker in question. Some contributing nations don’t have extraterritorial jurisdiction, so they can’t prosecute their nationals for crimes overseas. For military personnel, this becomes even worse: most military forces are unwilling to have their soldiers judged by an international or foreign court. Because of this, UN soldiers in the field tend to have immunity from prosecution, as a way to meet the organisation’s high demand for peacekeepers.
And even then, before any prosecution can begin, the United Nations itself closes ranks and investigates on its own. UN internal inquiries are held before the accused is handed over to prosecution, whatever that may be, and when they are found guilty by the UN the usual response is to repatriate the soldiers involved and let their own courts convict them. Sometimes this happens, although it should be noted that the Indian military contingent in the UN is the second largest and that one of the three convicted was accused of making obscene gestures at a fellow soldier. Often the guilty simply disappear, re-absorbed into a military that either doesn’t want to lose face with a public prosecution or doesn’t care. As IBTimes notes, many of the UN police officers involved in sex-trafficking in Bosnia were repatriated but never punished.
The question of what happens to those accused of crimes like these has not been answered, and involves a nightmare of international law and national prejudice.
The United Nations is doing something about this problem. Recently, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon asked for ‘decisive and bold action’ to end exploitation by UN peacekeepers, laying out a raft of measures to ease prosecution and even demanding that the salaries of guilty peacekeepers be transferred to a trust fund to compensate victims. As the article notes, however, even the Russians have noted that the legislation is ‘far from ideal’ and doesn’t cover civilian workers or foreign troops who are not technically peacekeepers – US forces in Mogadishu in 1993, for example. In August 2015, the mission chief in command of the controversial CAR mission was forced to resign by Ban Ki-Moon, after a mission which was accused of dozens of counts of sexual abuse of children by Moroccan, Burundian and French troops.
After many scandals, the United Nations has begun to address this problem; the number of reported cases dropped to just 51 in 2014, but a simple statistical drop doesn’t suggest that the heart of the issue has been addressed. This isn’t a problem with a single clear solution, but the UN and the contributing nations have to deal with it- these crimes undermine the authority and credibility of the United Nations, and threaten to destabilise their ability to carry out vital peacekeeping work. More to the point, the UN is failing in its duty: aiding and protecting the most vulnerable people in the world.
You can sign a petition on Avaaz demanding for accountability of the UN’s peacekeepers here.
You can read Part 2 here.
Featured image © The Star