UN Peacekeeping And Sexual Assault: Where Are We Now?


It has been over a year since the re-introduction of the zero-tolerance policy on sexual exploitation and abuse, an issue that has long been rife within the United Nations (UN). Stemming from a resolution adopted on March 10, 2017, the policy stresses the importance of states holding perpetrators accountable, particularly the troops they have directed to peacekeeping missions abroad. An analysis on the policy’s progress and other efforts to rid the UN of this plaguing issue, which undermines the reputation of the UN and its work, but more importantly undermines the safety and security of those seeking protection amidst conflict, is thus warranted.

While UN personnel in all levels of peacekeeping operations work hard to provide security and a peaceful presence in vulnerable regions, building trust and confidence with communities in need, this relationship erodes when abuses of power have led to sexual exploitation of local people by UN personnel. The past two decades have seen particularly repugnant abuses of power and trust carried out by members of UN peacekeeping operations. The involvement of military and non-military personnel in the sexual exploitation of women and children, as well as involvement in sex trafficking operations, prostitution and pornography has justifiably outraged many. In 2013, sexual abuse and exploitation was declared ‘the most significant risk to UN peacekeeping missions’ by a UN investigation. This issue undermines the foundation of trust that is vital to the effectiveness of their presence, surpassing the risk that the conflict zones themselves, present to missions.

Since 1948 there have been 71 UN peacekeeping operations. There are 14 which are currently in operation today. In April 2017, an investigation conducted by Associated Press revealed the existence of nearly 2000 sexual abuse allegations against UN peacekeepers and other officials around the world between 2004 and 2016. A particularly notorious case emerged in 1995, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where UN personnel were found not only to be complicit in sexual trafficking, but that they frequented the brothels where these young girls and women had been trafficked to work as sex slaves. The response from the UN only emerged in 1999 once negative media attention and public opinion gained traction, yet it failed to provide adequate protection for victims and accountability for perpetrators. The issue of accountability gained further attention following the UN’s inept response to allegations that French peacekeepers had sexually abused children in the Central African Republic. Anders Kompass, the whistle-blower on this issue and the operations director of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner at the time, passed the matter on to French authorities in 2014, which led to Kompass’ suspension following an investigation conducted by the UN Office for Internal Oversight Services. In 2015, Jordan’s ambassador to the UN conducted an internal UN study which found the issue to be plaguing missions all across the world, from Haiti and Cambodia to Bosnia and Sierra Leone.

The UN has been attempting to emphasize the ‘zero-tolerance, no excuses’ policy and incorporate it into mission mandates. Last year, the UN withdrew 600 Republic of the Congo troops from the Central African Republic amid allegations of sexual abuse. Additionally, to aid the zero-tolerance policy, the UN Secretary General created UN Victims’ Rights Advocate (VRA) to visit peacekeeping operations, promote the importance of the ‘zero-tolerance, no excuses’ policy and ensure that victims are at the centre of the UN’s approach. Appointed to South Sudan in December 2017, where four out of the 103 allegations of sexual exploitation in that year took place, the VRA also worked to encourage reporting of these cases. Though four may seem a small number, the stigma attached to reporting abuses of a sexual nature likely makes individuals reluctant to speak out. In addition to creating the role of the VRA, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has also threatened to stop payments to countries who do not adequately investigate sexual abuse accusations against their troops.

While ‘zero-tolerance’ adds an important layer of emphasis to the mandates and expectations of troops, it does not need deal with the issue of accountability. According to SBS News, only 21 cases since 2015 have been validated, and less than half of those found guilty received jail time. The most common response has been to dismiss the perpetrators, send them home or to other missions or have them administratively reprimanded. This culture of impunity is due to a legal lacuna which relies on states to prosecute individuals, as the United Nations has no authority or jurisdiction to do so. However, this does not warrant the UN to stand idly by. As noted by Dr Elgebeily from the University of Sydney, the Security Council has often failed to respond to reports presented to it.

Research conducted by the Code Blue Campaign, who since 2015 has been working towards ending the impunity for sexual abuse by UN personnel, with the support of international experts on women, peace and security, human rights and the law have attempted to understand wherein lies the root of the problem. Though beset by a web of issues, each needing attention on its own for the policy of ‘zero-tolerance’ to progress effectively, their investigations dissect the issue as a consequence of UN immunity. Despite this immunity being an important mechanism to the functioning of the UN, and is considered necessary to prevent the host state sabotaging efforts to assist in post-conflict settings, its misapplication in creating a culture of impunity and must be dealt with before it undermines the vital work and reputation of the United Nations and the safety and security of those under its protection.

While Code Blue conducts their campaign, and largely centres itself on addressing the legal lacuna created by this immunity, troop contributing countries must play their part in responding to cases of abuse by their troops, by bringing cases to trial, gathering evidence and prosecuting. Additionally, there must exist a more thorough screening process conducted by troops and overseen by the Department of Peacekeeping Operations to ensure troops sent abroad to protect have not been accused or prosecuted of violating any laws, particularly of an abusive or sexual kind.

Improving the representation of women in peacekeeping missions may also help. An analysis of mission-level information between 2009 and 2013 conducted by researchers, has found that missions which have a higher proportion of both female peacekeepers and personnel from countries with better records of gender equality has been linked to lower sexual abuse and exploitation allegations reported against troops. These mechanisms to restructure the composition of peacekeeping forces assume the existence of a patriarchal and hyper-masculinity that may perpetuate sexual abuse in missions. Though it is not plausible that the mere existence of more women in missions may quell this, improving gender equality in missions is a valuable objective in its own right. This by no means addresses the root of the problem, but it will be of value in the meantime.

While underfunding is a legitimate concern for the UN, as is its limited jurisdiction of personnel from troop contributing countries, it does have a great number of tools at its discretion. One of these tools includes the ability to refer matters to the International Criminal Court and obtain advisory opinions from the International Court of Justice. Beyond this, a more substantial move would be to work towards the establishment of an independent court or tribunal in peacekeeping countries, where the existence of legal and judicial systems has been determined by the UN to be inadequate. Impartial oversight, by international experts adds a layer of transparency needed to ensure claims are not brushed under the carpet by the UN or home countries. Conflict of interest has been routinely cited as an issue when dealing with claims of sexual abuse. Alex Haines, a barrister who specializes in institutional law of international organizations, has highlighted the failure of the UN’s internal justice system, citing a case in central Asia in 2015, where a man accused of sexual harassment was allowed to interview the woman who brought the complaint against him.

The UN should empower this independent mechanism as it is thoroughly consistent with its organization’s responsibility to comply with international law and respect human rights. Independent tribunals are not unprecedented. They exist within the UN already to deal with employment cases for example. While this would still protect the functioning of immunity that is necessary in some circumstances, it would remedy the existence of immunity in cases where it is abused and effectively shields perpetrators.