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Sexual exploitation and abuse by UN Peacekeepers

Sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) by UN peacekeepers is not fresh news. It has been going on for years. It first hit the headlines over ten years ago, and the scandal drove the UN to take action. Yet recent allegations over SEA by French peacekeepers in 2014 have brought the issue to the forefront again, and have motivated the UN Secretary-General to escalate the UN’s response to SEA in its peacekeeping operations.

Ban Ki-Moon’s decision to ‘name and shame’ states whose personnel commit sexual exploitation and abuse whilst serving in UN peacekeeping operations is long overdue. The UN started reporting statistics of SEA in 2003, but naming nationalities of offenders has never been part of the reporting process. The idea behind this was to avoid antagonising current or potential troop contributing states. The UN struggles to obtain personnel (not to mention funding and equipment) for peacekeeping operations, and it feared that embarrassing a troop-contributing state would mean withdrawal of all personnel by that country. Yet SEA persists, and this leads us to ask: are we better off having fewer peacekeeping personnel, none of whom rape and sexually exploit children and women, or having more personnel, some of whom do? Clearly the former is a more attractive option. The commission of SEA by peacekeeping personnel seriously jeopardises the entire operation, with the local community and government losing trust in the peacekeepers. This loss of trust leads to a breakdown in the ability of the operation to fulfil its mission, which depends on host state permission and cooperation at all levels.

The other decision taken by Ban was to request the resignation of the head of mission of the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA). MINUSCA is the mission that has been at the centre of the current scandal, with the majority of SEA cases involving young children and as yet resulting in not one conviction. The same day that Ban announced the dismissal of the head of mission more allegations arose, this time considered to likely be troops from the Democratic Republic of Congo. The decision to dismiss the head of mission is appropriate and long overdue, as heads of mission are responsible, as civilian superiors, for the conduct of all personnel in mission.

The majority of offenders of sexual exploitation and abuse in peacekeeping operations are military personnel, with police the third largest group of offenders. Under Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) and Status of Forces Agreements (SOFAs), criminal jurisdiction over military and police is granted to their sending state. The host state expressly agrees not to undertake criminal prosecution of peacekeeping personnel for any conduct that takes place in their territory. The UN undertakes initial investigation of allegations, but has no authority or capability to conduct criminal investigations and trial processes.

Annual reporting by the UN of sexual exploitation and abuse statistics shows that reported cases of SEA peaked in 2004 and 2005 (340 allegations), but dropped significantly from 2011 onwards. However, the number of cases annually remains above 50, with 51 reported cases in 2014. After UN investigation, some allegations are found to be unsubstantiated. However, many are found to be valid claims, at which point the personnel in question are repatriated, with the responsibility for the case turned over to the sending state. The UN follows up on state action, but often receives no response. The majority of cases actioned by states result in administrative punishment only, with no criminal proceedings ever taking place. This impunity is shocking, especially given that the majority of allegations relate to sex with children or rape of adults — clearly criminal conduct. A number of allegations also have paternity claims attached.

Given the lack of prosecutions undertaken by sending states, one of the alternative options for accountability of peacekeepers could be the International Criminal Court. Of course, the ICC’s jurisdiction would only be applicable if the crime by a peacekeeper amounted to a war crime, a crime against humanity, or genocide. While genocide is unlikely, the former are possibilities for a peacekeeping operation that takes place in a situation of armed conflict or crimes against humanity — as MINUSCA does. If that is the case, and a sending state does not carry out an effective investigation and/or prosecution of its personnel, then the ICC should be used as an option. Indeed, peacekeepers who do commit atrocities such as rape should be specifically targeted for prosecution, due to their special role of upholding the rule of law and human rights, and protecting civilians. Crimes committed by peacekeepers are especially grave because of who commits them. We need to eliminate impunity for peacekeeper sexual exploitation and abuse, and if states are not taking action to punish this criminal conduct, then the ICC should.

Headline image credit: A multinational UN battalion at the 2008 Bastille Day military parade. Photo © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY 2.5

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