Take Back the Fight: When UN Peacekeepers Commit Sexual Abuse

Sexual exploitation and abuse by UN peacekeepers increases the suffering of already vulnerable populations.

I was left feeling numb by the extent to which people can be made to suffer. The young women of Bunia, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, had survived the most gruesome wartime experiences—massacres, multiple rapes, disease and hunger—only to then find themselves tormented by the very people who were sent in to save them. It was clear these people had endured unabashed cruelty.  – Prince Zeid Ra’ad Zeid al-Hussein

United Nations peacekeepers operate in some of the most difficult and dangerous parts of the world. Contemporary peacekeeping operations have more complex mandates than ever before. Today, peacekeepers are asked to disarm violent groups, ensure safe delivery of humanitarian assistance and protect civilians from atrocities.

Despite the important role peacekeeping missions play in restoring peace and security to fragile nations, instances of sexual exploitation and abuse committed by UN peacekeepers have brought increased suffering to already vulnerable populations and tarnished the reputation of UN peacekeeping. This month marks the tenth anniversary of the seminal “Zeid Report,” which recommended a complete overhaul of UN sexual-exploitation and abuse policy.

The problem of sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeepers is not new. Allegations arose in the Balkans, Cambodia and Timor-Leste in the 1990s and in West Africa in 2002. In 2004, peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of Congo were accused of rape, having sex with children and exchanging food and money for sex.

After numerous allegations made international headlines, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan asked His Royal Highness Prince Zeid Ra’ad Zeid al-Hussein of Jordan to prepare a comprehensive report on sexual exploitation and abuse in UN peacekeeping missions. The report found measures in place were inadequate to deal with the problem.

The Zeid Report recommended a number of reforms, including applying standards of conduct to all categories of personnel, establishing a permanent, professional investigative mechanism and holding troop-contributing countries accountable for enforcing disciplinary action.

Over the last decade, many Zeid Report recommendations have been implemented. For example, an entirely new Conduct and Discipline Unit was established at UN headquarters to organize training and monitoring efforts. Further, UN agreements with troop contributors have been revised to require the referral of credible allegations to national authorities. Additionally, civilian managers and military commanders have instituted curfews, off-limits establishments, off-duty uniforms and abuse-reporting hotlines.

Since the implementation of many Zeid Report recommendations, there has been a general downward trend in allegations, even though the number of total personnel serving in peacekeeping operations has increased from about 81,000 to 122,000. In fact, the number of allegations has been cut in half over the last five years, from 112 in 2009 to forty-six allegations in 2014. Although it is difficult to draw conclusions based on the number of allegations, which may be influenced by many factors, these figures suggest UN reforms and initiatives may be having an impact.

Nevertheless, as long as instances of sexual exploitation and abuse continue to occur, existing efforts must be improved. The following recommendations build on current UN programs and policies.

First, the UN should continue to improve anti–sexual exploitation and abuse training tools based on available technology, particularly by incorporating computer-based elements.

Second, because peacekeeper-troop conduct is the responsibility of troop-contributing countries, the UN should continue systematically following up with troop contributors and stay informed of the actions taken to discipline offenders. Many troop contributors are reluctant to admit the misconduct of their peacekeepers and often delay investigations or fail to conduct them altogether.

Third, the UN should ensure all victims receive adequate support. The current UN strategy to support victims envisages providing medical, legal and psychological care, as well as facilitating the pursuit of paternity and child-support claims.

Lastly, the UN should evaluate the effectiveness of current policies. Measures to address sexual exploitation and abuse have been subject to ongoing monitoring and assessments over the years; however, there has not been an independent review of the entire approach since the Zeid Report.

The UN has taken commendable steps toward reducing sexual exploitation and abuse committed by its peacekeepers. New conduct and discipline expertise, as well as an increase in resources to reduce sexual exploitation and abuse are having an impact on the ground. The UN must not lose momentum. Not only does sexual exploitation and abuse increase the suffering of an already-vulnerable population, it undermines the peacekeeping mission in the eyes of the host country and international community. Progress has been made, but there is still more work to be done.

Jenna Stern is a visiting fellow in the Future of Peace Operations program at the nonpartisan Stimson Center.

Image: Flickr/United Nations Photo