The Darker Side of Peacekeeping: the UN and Sexual Abuse

Emma Faverio

The United Nations as a supranational institution that seeks to promote and maintain peace globally is the UN we are accustomed to thinking about. Currently, its peacekeeping forces are actively deployed across the world in 14 different operations, in order to ensure that post-conflict countries achieve full stability. However, there is another side to the UN peacekeepers that has gained much attention in the international media: the numerous accounts of sexual abuse being perpetrated by its own forces against local populations during their operations. In the last 15 years, the UN has documented more than 1,700 allegations of sexual abuse by peacekeepers, yet the real number is possibly much greater. The perpetrators seem to range across the UN ranks, from military personnel to volunteers, and the term sexual abuse encompasses multiple acts, prominently including sexual exploitation whereby locals exchange sexual acts for material goods via certain peacekeepers. This begs us to question how a force created to ensure harmony within already vulnerable communities can in reality create so much disruption.

Undermining all Attempts at Peace

It is important to recognize that the UN as a third-party peacekeeping operation has encountered multiple successes worldwide and has helped countries transition from war to peace. A recent example of the UN working at full effect can be witnessed in their ceasing of operations in Liberia during 2018, after 13 years of peacekeeping resulted in a significant national election and increased stability. However, the objectives put forward by the UN can only be undermined by the conduct of certain peacekeepers who seek to sexually abuse or exploit people within the local communities.

The documented allegations against UN peacekeeper troops vary in nature, from a prostitution ring being set up in Bosnia by the blue helmets to UN personnel throughout West Africa exchanging aid for sexual favours. Nonetheless, one striking resemblance throughout numerous UN projects is the steep increase in prostitution, including child prostitution, associated with the presence of peacekeeping troops in a certain state. This particular section of the economy is fuelled by the UN’s arrival and can have dire consequences for the building of a post-conflict state. Circling back to the documented success story that was the UN Mission in Liberia, an article within the International Organisation journal seems to point to a contradictory reality. It has been documented that 50% of the women within Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, had engaged in transactional sex with the blue helmets; thus, the UN leaves behind a legacy in Liberia whereby half the women in Monrovia engage in an economic market for their livelihood that may crumble without the peacekeepers present. Overall, the increase of sexual exploitation does not align with the goal of a stable country.

UN Eradication of the ‘Cancer in our System’

The spotlight on the numerous sexual abuses within the UN ranks has equally called for an investigation into why these abuses continue to be perpetuated, with notable figures within the organisation such as Ban Ki-Moon stating that it is a ‘cancer in our system’. In recent years, the UN has incorporated multiple preventive measures within its system in order to eradicate these practices. These reforms have been varied and include but are not limited to: the creation of the role of Special Coordinator in investigating sexual abuse allegations within the UN, mandatory training against sexual exploitation for peacekeeping troops and more severe punishments for units where these accusations occur.

Nonetheless, UN peacekeepers retain a high level of impunity for the crimes they have committed. This is demonstrated by the statistics stating that only 54 peacekeepers have so far been incarcerated for the sexual offences they have committed on a mission. This impunity partly stems from legal constraints within the UN, ensuring that peacekeepers are bound to the jurisdiction of their native country and not the country in which they are operating. This ultimately results in the creation of a lacuna between the alleged abuse and its persecution, as either the political will or appropriate legislation is not present in the peacekeeper’s home nation and creates obstacles towards rendering individuals accountable. The lack of legal punishment has wide reaching effects, not just for the sexual abusers who do not face reprimand for their actions. Those being sexually abused are also encouraged to remain silent, as the idea that an allegation of abuse will not be taken seriously by authorities is persevered. In this way, systems within the UN inadvertently maintain the cyclical violence that is sexual abuse.

UN Peacekeepers as a Reflection of Society

Although it is vital that the UN itself review its organisation in a way to prevent these instances of sexual abuse, these cases also represent an exploitation of power by the peacekeepers that have deep roots within social inequalities. It is significant to intersect these claims with the balances of power resultant from sexism, classism and racism. For example, the claim that there have been more sexual abuse claims within missions in Haiti, Liberia, South Sudan, Ivory Coast, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic than all other missions combined point towards a systemic racism within the peacekeeping troops. The crimes committed due to a misbalance of force has resulted in comparisons being made between the UN troops in a post-conflict setting and military troops in a conflict setting, further reducing their credibility as agents for peace. This leads to the importance of not viewing UN peacekeepers as isolated, but rather as equally influenced by the same prejudices as countless other fields.

The cases of violations of a sexual nature perpetuated by the blue helmets have shattered our original perception of the UN; how can we align an organisation that is supposedly a force of peace with the terrible crimes executed by certain members of their troops? However, multiple methods to combat this reality are emerging, from the possibility of an independent body reviewing the UN’s conduct to the introduction of more women into peacekeeping forces. At the basis however remain firm inequalities that must always be addressed when implementing solutions to protect the most vulnerable from being victims of the international development industry.


Feature image credits: UNODC

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s