by Rob Harding
TW: Sexual assault, rape, genocide.
Last week, we looked at the UN’s recent history of sexual assault and corruption on peacekeeping operations around the world. Despite the best efforts of two secretary-generals and nearly 20 years of reported crimes, the UN has yet to eliminate the persistent problems of ‘transactional sex’ and straight-up assault from among its peacekeeper forces. The crimes are committed both by members of various national militaries contributed to UN forces and by civilian employees, all of whom are currently essentially immune to prosecution. But what is the United Nations doing about it? What other action could be taken?
The United Nations isn’t ignoring this problem, and after the forced resignation of Babacar Gaye, (commander of the particularly abusive MINUSCA mission in the Central African Republic) in August 2015 the organisation has actively begun implementing new measures to prevent this kind of peacekeeper abuse. Unfortunately, the action that’s been taken so far hasn’t been particularly heartening.
The crimes are committed both by members of various national militaries contributed to UN forces and by civilian employees
On the 12th of March this year, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2272 to specifically tackle sexual abuse amongst peacekeepers. The resolution, which was drafted by the US, was approved by 14-0 with Egypt abstaining after an amendment it proposed was defeated. It endorses Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon’s plans to repatriate military and police units with evidence of ‘widespread or systemic sexual exploitation or abuse’ and ‘requests’ that they review countries who are potentially contributing troops, to determine whether they are capable and willing to prosecute and punish soldiers who commit crimes. Furthermore, it requests that the Secretary-General ‘gather and preserve evidence ahead of investigations… in United Nations peace operations’, as well as demanding that contributing states take steps to vet and train their personnel, investigate allegations against their troops and deny them impunity during operations. The resolution ends by essentially reminding everyone of the rules and somewhat vaguely asking that member states and peacekeeping forces keep their promises.
This resolution is a start. It’s a statement of intent, more than anything, and it doesn’t make any specific provisions beyond demanding that the United Nations and its member states do what they should have been doing anyway. Note that it doesn’t do anything to deal with the problem of abuses by civilian peacekeepers, UN employees rather than military personnel, despite civilian staff being in an exploitable position of authority similar to armed personnel and seeing less oversight and discipline. Objections to the collective punishment aspect of the resolution have been raised by Security Council members as well, forming the base of Egypt’s abstention.
So what should the UN do? Any action they take risks alienating contributing nations and reducing the number of troops the UN has at its disposal. With proposed missions in Darfur and a likely intervention in the Middle East at some time in the next decade, the UN is going to need everyone it can get. Even just ensuring that the nations contributing troops can be trusted to punish individuals guilty of these offences risks reducing available troop numbers. Either reducing the degree of UN involvement in investigations or increasing it to the point where the UN itself has the authority to prosecute its own staff or even contributed soldiers would potentially serve as more of a deterrent to would-be rapists, but it wouldn’t stop them altogether.
Any action they take risks alienating contributing nations and reducing the number of troops the UN has at its disposal.
The UN has argued that its actions in the past two years have reduced the number of accusations, with current Under-Secretary General for Peacekeeping Herve Ladsous claiming a significant fall in reported cases between 2005 and 2014, while also claiming that ‘any immunity that United Nations police and civilian personnel enjoy is for their official acts, not for their private acts.’ Attempts to shame contributing nations into punishing their soldiers are also underway, as is a plan to hold court martials ‘on the spot, where their troops are serving.’ (Because already questionable military justice is much more reliable when conducted by other soldiers in the same theatre.) Ladsous even suggested that DNA samples should be taken from peacekeepers when they are recruited, which is again a further deterrent.
Other more radical ideas have been suggested by others outside the UN’s chain of command. Heavily increasing the proportion of female peacekeepers has been suggested, citing that civilians are more likely to open up to female peacekeepers, particularly when they’ve been sexually assaulted. The proposal, later expanded in The Guardian, mentions that the UN currently has only 69 female military personnel in its 16 missions worldwide, and describes women as ‘more effective in communicating and persuading.’ The UN is considering the idea, certainly in terms of increasing the number of female soldiers and staff on various UN missions, but there are concerns that using women as combat troops will not be accepted by the various contributing militaries.
the UN currently has only 69 female military personnel in its 16 missions worldwide, and describes women as ‘more effective in communicating and persuading.’
The primary objection to this idea given in the article is the outdated idea that women are less capable in combat, and this is an idea that even the US and Britain have yet to fully shake off, even as the distinction between frontline and rear line becomes harder to shake off. Increased deployment of female troops and staff would make victims more likely to report abuse and improve the UN’s ability to deal with victims of abuse. It won’t necessarily reduce the amount of actual abuse occurring, of course, and the current suggestions over-generalise about the differences between male and female soldiers, but such measures might improve the overall culture of the UN’s expeditions by sheer presence.
The United Nations has made steps to drastically reduce the number of abuses by Peacekeeper soldiers, and the organisation has at least publicly condemned the individuals rather than closing ranks or blaming the nations the perpetrators came from. There’s still a long way to go, however, in terms of streamlining the legal process for punishing these individuals and in terms of assigning blame, and the UN cannot afford to neglect this process, operationally or morally.
You can sign a petition on Avaaz demanding for accountability of the UN’s peacekeepers here.
Featured image © David A. Frech