Coauthored with Eleanor Powell, intern in the International Institutions and Global Governance program at the Council on Foreign Relations.
United Nations peacekeeping efforts have long had a dark side: a history of sexual exploitation and abuse against civilians by UN personnel. While the UN has paid lip service to stopping such sexual violence, a recent internal review reveals the still-alarming scope of these crimes—and the failure of the international community to hold perpetrators to account.
After years of inaction and broken promises, however, several factors are aligning today in promising ways that prime the political environment for progress. But the important question is how far this progress will go.
Sexual violence by peacekeepers is by now disturbingly familiar. Reports of such crimes date back at least to the 1990s, in UN missions in Mozambique, Bosnia, Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. Abuses ran the gamut from sex trafficking to prostitution in exchange for money, food, or medical supplies. After repeated outcries, the UN condemned these abuses as reprehensible in a 2003 special bulletin from the secretary-general and established a “zero tolerance” policy in 2005. In fact, business as usual continues.
Experts offer various explanations for these recurrent abuses, ranging from power differentials between peacekeepers and impoverished civilians to lack of training and education on UN policies within troop-contributing countries. But one common thread runs through all these cases of abuse: peacekeeping personnel enjoy a staggering level of impunity, thanks to the structure of the UN peacekeeping system. Generally speaking, rich states contribute funds for peacekeeping, and poorer states contribute troops. UN peacekeeping missions are at their historic high deployment, with 106,000 military and police units (compared to 34,000 in 2000) and 19,000 civilian staff in sixteen operations under UN command around the world. Moreover, contemporary missions last almost three times longer than their predecessors, and the UN also provides logistical support to more than 20,000 African Union (AU) personnel. The high demand for UN peacekeepers means that the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations (UNDPKO) is constantly scrambling not just for funds, but for personnel to fill peacekeeping slots.
Current UN policies go extra lengths to encourage troop-contributing countries to keep sending personnel—with disastrous consequences for oversight and accountability. Currently, agreements among UNDPKO, troop-contributing countries, and host countries assign jurisdiction for investigating any alleged abuse solely to the troop-contributing country. Any disciplinary action by the sending state, moreover, remains purely voluntary. These policies are meant to send two clear messages: the sovereignty of troop-contributing countries will be protected, and the UN is in the business of promoting continued troop donations rather than turning them away.
Inevitably, given the UN’s desire not to step on anyone’s toes, internal UN reform efforts to date have done little to stop sexual abuse by peacekeepers. A UN Office of International Oversight Services report from May 2015 recorded 480 allegations of abuse between 2008 and 2013. (Given the underreporting of such crimes, the number of victims is likely far higher). While no UN mission was immune, the report singled out as egregious four missions in Haiti, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, and Sudan/South Sudan. Moreover, the report suggested a disturbing trend: in 36 percent of cases, the alleged victims were minors.
This report, along with the recent leaked allegations against French troops in the Central African Republic and another round of allegations of abuses committed by AU peacekeeping contingents from Chad and Equatorial Guinea, suggests that little has been done to curb sexual abuse in such operations a quarter of a century after it was first reported.
At long last, however, real action may be on the horizon. In June, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced the creation of an External Independent Review Panel, co-chaired by Marie Deschamps (Canada), Hassan Jallow (Gambia), and Yasmin Sooka (South Africa), to examine the UN’s handling of allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse. This marks the first time the UN has commissioned such a review. The panel will publicly release its findings within ten weeks, to be subsequently used “in any manner the Secretary-General considers to be in the interests of the United Nations.” Meanwhile, President Obama plans to hold a summit on peacekeeping during the UN General Assembly’s high-level week in late September. Beyond urging states to fill gaps in existing missions and plan future operations, the president can use this platform to highlight the glaring problem of sexual abuse in UN missions. Finally, in October, the United Nations is scheduled to undertake a high-level review of Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000), which calls upon UN peace missions to be more gender sensitive and end impunity for gender-based crimes.
In parallel with these multilateral efforts, some troop-contributing states are beginning to combat impunity on their own, by taking allegations against their nationals seriously, and publicly detailing their disciplinary actions. India recently made headlines for punishing several members of its contingent for sexual abuses in the DRC, and France announced it would take legal action against its soldiers accused of raping children in the Central African Republic in 2014.
Another promising development is the growing activism of civil society actors. Until recently, the advocacy community focused its energies on the broader category of sexual violence in conflict, which has sometimes distracted attention from the particular problem of abuse by peacekeepers. That has changed. In May, Code Blue became the first advocacy campaign focused specifically on sexual exploitation committed by peacekeeping personnel. The group has leaked internal UN reports, placing new pressure on the UN, troop-contributing states, and major funders of peace operations—including the United States. More recently, in July, the UN’s deputy high commissioner for human rights, Flavia Pansieri, stepped down after Code Blue’s leaked reports revealed that she had failed to act after being informed of allegations against French soldiers in the Central African Republic.
This unprecedented confluence of factors—including high-level attention from the UN, national governments, the media, and advocacy groups—suggests that real reform could be in the offing. But it is by no means guaranteed. This attention provides a window of opportunity for action against sexual violence by peacekeepers, but that window will not stay open long, as interest inevitably shifts to other international crises and scandals.
Moreover, this brief window of opportunity may not be open to all possible reforms. True progress on this issue would entail greater transparency and cooperation from troop-contributing countries, a consistent process for handling allegations and determining sentences, and some form of UN enforcement capability to deal with states that refuse to comply. But with little being done to combat the UN’s problem of high troop demand and low supply, peacekeeping missions are unlikely to see these major reforms any time soon.
The danger is that UN member states and the UN itself will continue to take cosmetic steps, such as a nonbinding General Assembly resolution that condemns sexual violence by peacekeepers and directs troop contributors and mission commanders to take steps, including improved predeployment training and mission monitoring, to curtail such abuse. Another risk is that the UN will hail the report as a watershed moment, only to let recommendations get lost in bureaucratic limbo.
While promoting norms is important, accountability and consequences matter even more. The UN needs to establish some mechanism to hold UN troops and civilian personnel to account for sexual crimes committed during peace operations, so that they cannot be shielded behind national sovereignty.
True change will require three ingredients: greater transparency, generous funding, and high-level political pressure. First, the UN must improve its mechanisms for victims to report abuse and mandate new reporting requirements for troop-contributing countries. Missions must detail and publicly disclose the number of victims and perpetrators, broken down by nationality, and the disciplinary action taken as a result of substantiated allegations. Greater transparency would expose the scope of the problem and help civil society groups hold troop-contributing countries accountable by naming and shaming governments that give their soldiers a pass when it comes to committing sexual violence.
Second, wealthy donor nations should provide legal, technical, and other assistance to help well-intentioned governments that are willing to hold their troops accountable but lack financial and other capacities to do so.
Finally, the United States must lead on this agenda. President Obama should use the UN special session on peace operations this September to spotlight the problem of sexual abuse by peacekeepers, and his administration should keep the pressure on in ensuing months to ensure that the UN’s fine words translate into action.