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When U.N. Peacekeepers Don't Keep the Peace

A 12-year-old girl in the Central African Republic was allegedly raped by a United Nations Peacekeeper this month. This is hardly the first time U.N. personnel have been accused of sexual abuse.
United Nations blue beret. (Photo: Zack Lee/Flickr)

United Nations blue beret. (Photo: Zack Lee/Flickr)

On August 2nd, gunfire erupted in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic. On one side of the violence: United Nations peacekeepers sent to the Central African Republic after the 2013 collapse of the government. On the other: a group of armed men. U.N. officers had been dispatched to a Muslim enclave in Bangui to apprehend a criminal suspect. But in the chaos of the gunfight—which claimed the lives of two innocent bystanders and one peacekeeper, and injured nine officers—a 12-year-old girl was allegedly raped. The perpetrator: a U.N. police officer. One of the very men sent there to protect the girl from violence.

According to a press release from Amnesty International, sometime around 2 a.m., a man wearing U.N. peacekeeping garb dragged the young girl from her hiding place in the bathroom of her home, into a courtyard, separating her from her family. "When she returned from the back of the courtyard, she cried 'mama' and fainted," the girl's sister told Amnesty International. Interviews with witnesses and the results of a medical examination both support the young victim's account, according to the press release.

Unfortunately, what happened in the Central African Republic isn't all that uncommon, to either the Central African Republic mission, which began operating in 2014, or to U.N. peacekeeping missions in general. Since the number of peacekeeping operations began to rise in the early 1990s, allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation—both forced and transactional sexual activity—against international humanitarian agencies soon followed. Reports of abuse surfaced during missions in the Balkans, Cambodia, Timor-Leste, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea.

Since the number of peacekeeping operations began to rise in the early 1990s, allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation against international humanitarian agencies soon followed.

In 2003, then-U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan enacted a zero tolerance policy for U.N. staffers, prohibiting sexual activity with beneficiaries of U.N. assistance. Annan's policy also explicitly banned sex with any beneficiary under the age of 18, regardless of the local laws about age of consent. ("Mistaken belief in the age of a child is not a defense," the bulletin added.) But the policy did little to prevent sexual abuse by peacekeepers on a U.N. mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo the very next year, according to the New York Times.

Since then, the U.N. has revamped its strategy to prevent sexual violence on its peacekeeping missions, refining its training, investigative and victim assistance processes, and creating a Conduct and Discipline Unit. And the number of allegations have indeed dropped since the agency overhauled it's processes, despite the fact that the number of peacekeepers has continued to climb, according to a 2015 policy brief from the Stimson Center, an independent, public policy non-profit.

Accusations of sexual abuse are not limited to the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations. A 2008 report from Save the Children UK found that personnel from at least 23 humanitarian and security organizations had been accused of sexual abuse. However, the report did find that, in many places, peacekeepers appeared to be the most likely perpetrators. The overrepresentation of peacekeepers among sexual abusers may be in part due to the size of their forces—the U.N. deploys more peacekeepers than most other emergency organizations—and the fact that the department is more likely to track and report its staffs' transgressions than other organizations.

"Peacekeepers are capable of exerting particular influence over the communities in which they serve, especially over children and young people," the authors of the 2008 report wrote. "This is largely due to the fact that they are armed and provide much-needed physical security within contexts of extreme fragility. Furthermore, peacekeeping forces contain a significant number of military personnel with discriminatory attitudes to women."

While the zero-tolerance policy the U.N. has in place could be criticized for not doing enough to actually prevent sexual assaults, some have said it actually goes too far, by outlawing consensual sexual relationships between peacekeepers and local adults. But the latest case in the Central African Republic highlights the fact that children are one demographic that is particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitation.

Official numbers are hard to come by. As is typical with sexual assault data, underreporting is a significant hurdle to tracking abuse by the personnel of humanitarian organizations, for both familiar and unfamiliar reasons. Victims worry about stigma, retribution by perpetrators (many of whom carry weapons), and the loss of aid. But of the 341 people living in emergency situations that Save the Children talked to for the 2008 report, two-thirds cited incidents of verbal sexual abuse, half spoke about physical incidents of abuse, and almost a quarter could recall 10 or more instances of sexual abuse by humanitarian organization workers. The same report found that the average victims were 14 or 15 years old, but the youngest victims were less than half that age, and coerced sex was more common that forced acts. "Children as young as six are trading sex with aid workers and peacekeepers in exchange for food, money, soap and, in a very few cases, luxury items such as mobile phones," the authors wrote.

"Peacekeeping forces contain a significant number of military personnel with discriminatory attitudes to women."

The eruption of violence on August 2nd brought the resignation of Babacar Gaye, the head of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic. But justice for the young victim, if it comes at all, is not likely to be swift: A suspect has yet to be identified, and if found, the perpetrator is unlikely to be tried for his crime in the Central African Republic. Peacekeepers are under the jurisdiction of their home countries (the New York Times reports that the U.N. peacekeepers involved in the incident were from Camaroon and Rwanda) and generally immune to prosecution in their host countries, according to the 2015 policy brief. "Although this immunity may be waived," the brief states, "that is unlikely where host state justice systems are dysfunctional and due process is in doubt."

In a press briefing on August 12th, Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary General of the U.N., reminded member states of their obligations to the victims of such crimes. "They have the ultimate responsibility to hold individual uniformed personnel to account and they must take decisive preventive and punitive action," he said. "I want perpetrators to know that if they commit a crime, we will do everything possible to pursue them and bring them to justice."

The consequences of failure are significant. Sexual abuse by peacekeepers undermines the credibility and power of the U.N. to promote adherence to international laws in unstable regions, not to mention the fact that it exacerbates the suffering of distressed populations.

"If we fail ... to approve decisive and visible steps to limit sexual abuse in U.N. peacekeeping," Jean-Marie Guéhenno, then under-secretary-general for peacekeeping operations said in an address to the Special Committee on Peacekeeping Operations in 2005, "then it will have serious implications for the future of peacekeeping. I do not say this lightly."