Zohra Bensemra / Reuters A Nigerian peacekeeping soldier in Nyla, southern Darfur, March 17,2009.

The United Nations and Sexual Abuse

Why Peacekeeping Reform Has Failed

In April 2015, the United Nations suspended its director of field operations in the office of the high commissioner for human rights in Geneva. Months earlier, the official, Anders Kompass, had leaked confidential documents detailing sexual abuse by French and Georgian soldiers stationed in the Central African Republic (CAR) in 2014. A public outcry followed, and half a year later, the UN exonerated him. By then, investigators had collected more evidence implicating French and Georgian soldiers from the EU-led peacekeeping force in the rape of young girls and boys during their deployment. According to the UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, one girl, who was only seven at the time, told UN investigators that French soldiers forced her into performing oral sex in order to receive water and food. At least three others, all between the ages of 14 and 16, told investigators that they were raped by soldiers whom they believed belonged to the Georgian contingent of the peacekeeping force.

There have now been 51 documented cases of sexual exploitation by peacekeepers stationed in CAR. According to the UN Assistant Secretary General, Anthony Banbury, that number is likely far lower than the actual number of cases since most acts of sexual abuse go unreported. In fact, just after the UN released its internal investigation in January, Human Rights Watch published its own report detailing additional abuses, including gang rapes by peacekeepers from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

French and Georgian authorities quickly condemned the abuse, but have been careful not to implicate the UN as a whole. Instead of acknowledging a systemic failure, the French and Georgian governments denounced the actions of “select few individuals.” The French mission to the UN tweeted that: “France remains very mobilized in the fight against violence and sexual abuses & against impunity for those responsible.” Georgia’s Ministry of Defense issued a statement immediately after the allegations came to light, saying that the perpetrators would be “brought to justice,” and that, “it is unacceptable for the alleged actions of several individuals, in case these are proven, to shame the image and prestige of the Georgian Armed Forces.” The U.S. Ambassador to Georgia, Ian C. Kelly, also danced around the issue. He said that he was “pleased” that the Georgian Ministry of Defense was taking the situation “seriously,” adding that, “it would be a shame if the allegations were allowed to tarnish the Georgian military’s proud reputation.” This language is notably similar to statements by Kofi Annan, then UN Secretary General, in 2005 in response to allegations of sexual abuse by peacekeepers stationed in Congo. Annan regretted that the “exemplary record” of UN peacekeeping missions was being “clouded by the unconscionable conduct ofa few individuals.”

French peacekeeping soldiers patrol a street of the mostly muslim neighbourhood of PK5 in Bangui, Central African Republic, November 25, 2015.

Individual prosecution, however, has not resulted in much progress on the problem of sexual abuse. An external report commissioned by the UN in mid-December heavily criticized the organization’s response to the recent scandal. That report charges UN investigators with failing to respond to the many charges of sexual abuse in the Central African Republic and suggests that their unwillingness to follow up on allegations meant that, in practice, few measures were ever instituted to end the abuse.

In fact, it has been over a decade since the UN first began addressing this issue and little has changed. Although abuse has been pervasive among UN peacekeeping missions since they began, it wasn’t until the early 2000s that it was brought to light. A series of investigative journalists and internal reports uncovered widespread sexual abuse, illegal prostitution, and even a sex-trafficking ring operated by UN peacekeepers, which finally forced the UN to cop up to the problem.

A few years later, in 2005, the UN General Assembly commissioned Prince Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein of Jordan, who was the president of the Assembly of State Parties at the International Criminal Court, to draw up a list of reforms that could bring an end to sexual abuse. Hussein is now the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Among other things, the Zeid Report called for the provision of child support for so-called “peacekeeper babies,” children fathered by peacekeepers and then abandoned, and detailed how individuals should be prosecuted for sexual abuse (an issue complicated by jurisdiction and the lack of established rule of law in many instances). But the report is notable for how much attention it gives to prosecution and how little attention it gives to addressing the underlying causes of sexual exploitation.

The report’s so-called preventive measures include issuing pamphlets to every soldier explaining that sexual abuse is wrong—as if the soldiers did not already know this. The report is sometimes even borderline apologetic. It suggests, for example, that soldiers get “seduced by day-to-day conditions that can be viewed as benign” and therefore, fail to take into account “the extent to which the society is traumatized and vulnerable.” It also says that it is, “of course, to be expected that from time to time individuals will violate the prohibitions against sexual exploitation and abuse,” noting that “this does not dishonour a contingent that is trying to deal with the problem and that takes action against alleged perpetrators.” Although the report warns that rape and sexual abuse are liable to prosecution, it admits that the governments who send peacekeepers have little incentive to do so.

For all of its faults, the Zeid Report did bring about some substantive reform, such as establishing professional investigative units, which are attached to missions. But these units are deeply troubled by bureaucratic inefficiencies, lack of staff, and concerns over public image.

According to the December report, in many cases UN Human Rights staff “failed to ensure that the [abused] children received adequate medical attention and humanitarian aid,” and allegations were “passed from desk to desk, inbox to inbox, across multiple UN offices, with no one willing to take responsibility to address the serious human rights violations.”

U.N. peacekeepers gesture from inside a vehicle, September 11, 2014.

There is, however, one avenue for action. It takes a less individualistic approach to sexual abuse cases, instead putting the pressure on governments to make needed structural changes. The recent case of France and Georgia is instructive. Between 2014–15, the United States supplied Georgia with $8.5 million in training funds alone. But it could use the Leahy Law to cut off this source of income. The law was introduced in 1997 and allows the U.S. State or Defense department to cancel U.S. funding for training and equipment programs to entire units that have standing human rights abuse allegations.

The Leahy Law is unique, in that it targets entire units even while investigations are under way. It is precisely because human rights abuses are considered systemic, rather than viewed in isolation, that the law carries any weight in the first place. The law is meant to limit the ability of a county to ignore the issue, say by reshuffling its soldiers, and it forces a government to treat the underlying causes of systemic human rights abuse. It has been used in the past to deny assistance to troops in Colombia, Mexico, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia. 

Since 2010, the U.S. State Department has streamlined the vetting process by using a database known as INVEST (International Vetting and Security Tracking) to crosscheck all units andindividuals who receive congressional funds against data on troops or individuals implicated in human rights abuse. The information is culled from a variety of governmental agencies, NGOs, and media sources. A Congressional Research Service report suggests that INVEST has blocked or suspended up to 10 percent of vetted units and individuals from receiving assistance.

At this time, the United States has not expressed any intent to apply the Leahy Law to Georgia, but the law could at least provide a blueprint for UN and EU-led peacekeeping reform. There is some indication that the UN has begun moving in this direction. The UN is looking into a broad range of initiatives to improve its response to sexual abuse and exploitation. One includes suspending reimbursements to peacekeepers found in violation of human rights, but only if there is “credible evidence.” (The UN currently reimburses peacekeepers about $1,300 per month.) It currently uses a Misconduct Tracking System, but unlike INVEST, only includes UN investigations of individuals who have already been accused of sexual abuse. It excludes external reports and therefore cannot assess whether newly commissioned troops were previously charged or associated with human rights violations.

Although in September 2015, UN Secretary-General Ban-ki-Moon stressed that he would “not hesitate to repatriate entire units or terminate deployments” in extreme cases of abuse, this has rarely happened. The UN recently took the extraordinary step of repatriating the entire DRC peacekeeping force serving in CAR after three accusations of rape surfaced. But the UN based the decommissioning “in terms of equipment, vetting, and preparedness,” not explicitly on sexual misconduct. In effect, we cannot be sure that allegations of abuse in and of themselves would have been enough to send the entire unit home. As for the EU-led peacekeeping forces, the UN can investigate and report abuses, but it has no jurisdiction to repatriate them. Although the UN tacitly endorsed the EU-led mission to CAR, the force did not come under its direct supervision. The EU-led troops did not undergo UN pre-deployment vetting, however limited that process is, and the UN can do very little to encourage reform. Between 2007 and 2014 the UN got less than half of the member states it followed up with to take disciplinary action against perpetrators. We can be sure that this “jurisdictional wrinkle” is severely handicapping the UN’s ability to reform the system.

That is why any effort to end, or even drastically reduce, sexual abuse among peacekeepers will require a comprehensive approach that involves cross-agency coordination, such as between the UN and the EU. As long as individuals are the only ones held responsible for their actions, and as long as jurisdictional issues prevent them from being prosecuted, there will be little incentive for contributing nations to spend their own resources on such efforts. The Leahy Law, which holds entire units responsible for their actions, may provide a useful model to reform a system that is clearly broken.

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