UN Peacekeepers' Sexual Assault Problem

How to End It Once and for All

Peacekeepers serving in the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo stand guard in a formation following  demonstrations in Beni in North Kivu province, October 2014.  Kenny Katombe / REUTERS

When I started working in peacebuilding over 20 years ago, the United Nations was coming under fire because multinational forces working as peacekeepers in Cambodia had sexually abused women and girls and spread HIV/AIDS and other diseases among local populations. In the many years since, UN peacekeepers have been accused of doing the same in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haiti, Liberia, and beyond. In 2014, peacekeepers from France and Georgia were implicated in incidents of sexual violence against young children in the Central African Republic. In 2016, following investigations, the UN reported 41 cases of abuse involving peacekeepers from Burundi and Gabon, including eight paternity cases and six filed on behalf of minors.

This violence does not happen only when national forces are deployed as UN peacekeepers. In May 2017, the New York Times reported that similar accusations had been made against the Ugandan People’s Defence Force. Having been deployed to one of the world’s most remote areas in the Central African Republic to capture the remnants of the Lord’s Resistance Army—a violent extremist group known for terrorizing communities and for their horrific abduction, rape, and abuse of boys and girls in Northern Uganda—UPDF soldiers instead were themselves implicated in raping and sexually exploiting young girls.

Where poverty is rife, the promise of a bar of soap and some food was often enough to entice a teenager, let alone promises of marriage and security. But the ending is always the same. Some girls become pregnant, others may be diseased, but the soldiers disappear, and the authorities typically deny, obfuscate, or promise investigations that ultimately lead nowhere. 

Over the years, one UN secretary general after another has responded with outrage. The Security Council and member states have also proverbially pounded the table in anger. Yet too often that ire is directed at the whistleblowers rather than the perpetrators.

Denials come fast and furious from many quarters. In the case of Somalia just a few years ago, it was a

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