On August 30, 2021, Buzzfeed News released an article detailing the long-term sexual exploitation and abuse of Haitian women and children by United Nations (UN) Peacekeepers. Buzzfeed highlights Hector Dilamar Borges, an Uruguayan UN Peacekeeper who a judge ordered to pay $3,590 a month for child support. Haitian courts ordered Borges to pay after receiving a positive DNA test proving that he had fathered a child named Jui in Haiti. Despite what is dubbed a “landmark ruling” in Haiti, receiving justice for victimized Haitian women remains a significant challenge even after decades of harm caused by Peacekeepers. Furthermore, UN personnel deployed to support areas experiencing humanitarian crises, climate disasters, and post-conflict instability have also contributed to a cycle of abuse with narrow pathways for accountability.
History of UN Peacekeeping
UN Peacekeeping, according to the United Nations, came into fruition in 1948 and was initiated to “maintain peace and security” by “facilitat[ing] political processes, protect[ing] civilians, [and] disarm[ing] combatants” as a means to advance human rights internationally. UN Peacekeepers primarily consist of “military or police” forces while a minority help improve “civilian leadership,” assisting civil and political processes. Further, Peacekeepers come from a variety of UN Member States. They are dispatched into highly vulnerable communities to respond to instances of socio-political and socio-economic unrest and emergencies warranting additional assistance.
Known as “UN Peace Support Operations” (PSO), these missions have been effective in preventing the onset of violent conflict and promoting “long-lasting peace,” according to Oxford Academic and Stability Journal. Yet, these sources also state that instances of widespread sexual exploitation and abuse by UN Peacekeepers globally have hugely undermined these efforts. Consequently, should there be no remedy to its root causes, communities will remain endangered by Peacekeepers meant to support them. To better understand the persistence of these acts, we will carefully examine the UN’s commitments and measures to combat the exploitation by its forces and how these efforts unfolded.
Women, Security, and Peace Agenda
In 2000, the United Nations Secretary-General implemented Resolution 1325, which focused on the critical role women play in peacekeeping operations and the “disproportionate impact of armed conflict on women and girls.” The Stockholm International Peace Reserach Institute (SIPRI) states that this Resolution served as a promising initial effort to put women at the forefront of a worldwide “security agenda” that often neglects them. Strengthening these initiatives in 2003, the United Nations Secretary-General also instituted an “Inter-Agency Standing Committee” to oversee potential “sexual exploitation and abuse in humanitarian cases” after implementing a UN Zero-Tolerance policy.
This policy condemns sexual misconduct by its Peacekeepers and prohibits any relations with those in communities they serve, citing “inherently unequal power dynamics.” Should individuals be found guilty of misconduct by their “national governments” and the UN, they will be subject to potential disciplinary action such as removal from their roles. The UN has also engaged its Peacekeepers in mandatory pre-deployment training that attempts to incorporate gender awareness and gendered inequalities into its curriculum to enforce these commitments further. In turn, these examples highlight conscious preventative and remedial mechanisms designed by the UN to better inform a Peacekeeper’s understanding in decision-making upon dispatch.
Gender Inequality in the UN
Despite measures to promote women’s rights, addressing gender inequality within the UN’s leadership and Peacekeeping force is critical to encourage a women-centered security agenda. The presence of women in all forms of peacekeeping operations is vital for “building trust and confidence” in vulnerable populations, better reflect “communities served,” and provide care for “survivors of gender-based violence.” Furthermore, the lack of women when implementing this plan may fail to address the needs of women.
First, Global Governance points to the lack of women in UN leadership positions. In 2015, only 8% of “senior-most UN staff” that “serve under the Secretary-General and Assistant Secretary-General” were women. These numbers also reflect the broader issue of gender disparity at top UN positions. As a result, necessary efforts at the top to oversee and improve initiatives and reforms regarding women as active participants in the peace agenda remain relatively slow, according to SIPRI and Global Governance.
On the other hand, according to 2020 statistics from the UN, only “4.8% of the military, 10.9% [of] formed police units, and 34% of government personnel” out of 95,000 Peacekeeping forces identified as women. A paper by Global Governance attributes this lack of gender diversity to “business-as-usual approaches” by the UN Member States and non-state actors. They fail to push the participation of more women in peacekeeping processes. Additionally, some women within the UN Peacekeeping force have expressed disdain working in these environments, as they lack considerable measures to promote a culture of inclusivity and prevent harassment, according to SIPRI. Consequently, women’s perspectives remain undervalued due to these shortcomings, thereby affecting outcomes during field operations.
As mentioned, the UN requires its Peacekeeping force to engage in mandatory, pre-deployment “gender training” in conflict and post-conflict settings. According to SIPRI, this training aims to “facilitate [the] process of developing awareness and capacity on gender issues,” as well as to empower Peacekeepers to “bring about personal or organizational change” for tackling gender disparities. However, gender training, formally beginning in 2000, has had “mixed results” as these trainings come in various forms depending on respective missions.
For one, SIPRI states that “time allotted to gender” in some training is extremely short, covering only “2 hours in a 10-day course.” Allotting only 2 hours for this topic leads to the exclusion of vital themes and discussions that fully explore the complexities and implications of gender inequality. Additionally, trainers are unprepared to answer essential questions regarding reporting instances of “sexual exploitation and abuse by colleagues” and the UN’s history of handling similar cases. Subsequently, trainers’ inability to answer these questions signals the need for more transparent and clear top-down protocols.
In comparison, UN Peacekeepers have responded positively to an “adapted, story-based” training. This training “integrated a gender perspective” by centering discourse around a specially made novel about a family affected by conflict and a deployed “foreign police officer.” Through this method, Peacekeepers better empathize with victims of war and better reflect on individual actions that can worsen conditions of communities. Therefore, when designing curriculums for gender awareness training, the UN must consider different approaches, improving with proper feedback each time. The UN can also consider incorporating the expertise of non-state actors such as NGOs who specialize in women’s rights to inform a more robust curriculum to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse.
The UN’s implementation of its Zero-Tolerance policy and Inter-Agency Standing Committee offers a good starting point for its commitment to centering women in its overarching security agenda. In cases of proven wrongdoing, UN policy also outlines its commitment to providing necessary financial assistance for supporting families affected by personnel. Yet, Stability Journal outlines “persistent reports of abuse” of “vulnerable and innocent civilians,” alongside inaccessible means for legal accountability and reparations during case filings.
Culture of Impunity in the UN
In 2004, the UN dispatched the United Nations Stabilization Mission Haiti, also known as MINUSTAH, after the spread of “armed conflict” throughout the country following a “rebellion [that] toppled then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide,” according to Reuters. In this mission, UN Peacekeepers needed to advance Haiti’s “immediate recovery” and “reconstruction” after the conflict. Conversely, MINUSTAH was linked to numerous cases of personnel who committed abhorrent human rights violations, had sexual exploitation allegations, and raped women and children. BBC, for instance, reports that Haitian girls, some as young as 11 years old, were victimized by UN Peacekeepers in the mission. Another report produced by Preliminary Investigative Results documents the egregious exploitation by “114 Sri Lankan Peacekeepers” linked to the proliferation of a child sex ring. Though the UN repatriated these Peacekeepers, criminal courts never charged them formally.
The “culture of impunity” within the United Nations is primarily responsible for the ineffectiveness of remedial measures in place. UN Regulations state that courts cannot prosecute UN Peacekeepers for alleged crimes if they come from abroad. Instead, after repatriation, Peacekeepers can only be tried in their home countries, meaning that victims must undergo a long, arduous process to have cases processed, thereby having “little access to justice.” Thus, should countries have no political will to hold guilty Peacekeepers accountable formally, survivors will most likely not have claims considered.
Landmark Ruling in Haitian Court — Is it Enough?
We can see how a culture of impunity plays out in the child support case of Jui, the daughter of UN Peacekeeper Hector Dilamar Borges. Phanie, Jui’s mother, solicited the help of Mario Joseph, an attorney from Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, a human rights firm based in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Having had extensive experience in the past two decades “fighting the UN” for harm caused by deployed UN personnel, Joseph describes the process as challenging, as the UN provides ambiguous responses to requests for additional investigations into claims. Joseph states: “They [United Nations] say they’re promoting human rights, yet they’re violating ours.”
And so, when a Haitian court, backed by UN officials, returned a ruling in favor of child support for Phanie’s family, there was some hope for future cases. However, eight months after this “landmark ruling,” Phanie and Jui have “yet to receive a single dollar from Borges,” according to Buzzfeed. Because the ruling was in Haiti, enforcing the decision is “nearly impossible” in Uruguay, leaving limited options for Phanie’s family.
Phanie and Jui’s case represents one of many in Haiti. Families affected by UN Peacekeepers have little to no resources, legal assistance, and financial compensation. Furthermore, the UN has utmost responsibility to deliver on its promises to further women’s interests and mitigate sexual exploitation and abuse. Fulfilling this promise first starts within their ranks, including women’s perspectives in decision-making on all levels. Then, the UN must evaluate preventive mechanisms for adequate gender equality in pre-deployment training for its Peacekeepers. Lastly, the UN must work hand-in-hand with local communities to provide the necessary legal guidance and funding for survivors while ensuring that perpetrators of sexual violence in its personnel are held fully accountable for their crimes.
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