Protectors turned predators


A country emerging out of violent conflict is often supported by peace operations, where the primary job of peacekeepers is to keep warring factions at bay and protect civilians as mandated by the United Nations (UN).

Sexual violence is often used as a weapon of war against civilians, especially women.

While peacekeepers are meant to provide physical security for these vulnerable, destitute and traumatised populations in the aftermath of war, they often perpetuate these very crimes in the course of peace operations amid conflict or post-conflict settings.

Sexual exploitation and abuse is defined as any actual or attempted abuse of a position of vulnerability, whether by force or coercion, for sexual purposes. Given the context amid which peace operations function, cases of sexual exploitation and abuse are seldom reported or investigated, and justice is denied to the victims.

Sexual abuse by peacekeepers must be seen as a gross violation of human rights

The release of a UN report on sexual offences made global headlines last year, since it came in the wake of allegations of such crimes in UN peace operations in the Central African Republic (CAR).

This had led to the sacking of the mission chief by the UN Secretary General. In April this year, three men from the UN peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic (CAR) appeared before a tribunal, charged with rape and attempted rape of minors.

But this issue is not new. As far back as August 1996, Graça Machel drew attention to the sexual exploitation of children during peace operations. Allegations have continued to surface periodically ever since. In 2003, following an investigation into the abuse of refugees by aid workers in West Africa, the UN Secretary-General announced a ‘zero tolerance’ policy on such offences and published a report titled Special measures for protection from sexual exploitation and sexual abuse.

However in March 2005, a report by the Secretary-General's adviser on sexual exploitation and abuse – arguably the first comprehensive documentation and analysis on the subject by UN peacekeeping personnel – presented ‘an alarming picture of a widespread and largely tolerated phenomenon’.

An updated report was adopted by the General Assembly in May last year, and the UN has announced that it is implementing more than 40 measures from the report to deal with this ongoing issue. Despite this, the number of cases of sexual exploitation and abuse rose from 52 reported cases in 2014 to 69 in 2015. So far, 41 cases have been documented this year in the CAR alone.

Candidates for peacekeeping missions also need to be vetted more rigorously

Code Blue, a campaign that aims to end impunity for sexual exploitation and abuse, has called for much more stringent measures to be adopted and implemented by the UN.

According to Code Blue director Paula Donovan, the scope of the problem is much wider and more complex than has been envisaged, and current measures do little to mitigate the problem.

At a conceptual level, sexual exploitation and abuse must be seen as a gross violation of human rights and not, as it is currently treated within the UN, as a matter of misconduct for internal disciplinary action. Some argue that the UN’s current approach encourages an environment where ‘dangerous perpetrators and silent bystanders’ threaten the effectiveness and benefit of peace operations. Defining sexual exploitation and abuse as an international crime will have significant implications for how cases are managed, investigated and prosecuted.

In terms of prevention, the standard two-week, pre-deployment gender-sensitivity training for military and police personnel for peace operations is inadequate for changing attitudes and behaviours. The training should highlight that such abuses are an international criminal offence, for which there will be appropriate consequences.

Candidates for peacekeeping missions also need to be vetted more rigorously. While the current system requires a record of misconduct in prior assignments, candidates should also be checked for any sexual offence-related crimes in their home country. In addition, a comprehensive database of allegations of sexual crimes should be kept for all peacekeepers.

The UN also needs to get clarity on the actual number of cases of sexual exploitation and abuse, along with information on the contexts and circumstances surrounding these cases. A central coordination point, independent of the UN and reporting directly to member states, is needed to receive complaints of such abuses, as well as gather and collate all information relevant to allegations. This would ensure that the information is accurate and transparent, and that there is no conflict of interest or need to protect individuals within the UN.

The UN must move from strong condemnation to prosecuting violators of peace operation mandates

In February this year, the Secretary-General has proposed a trust fund to provide the specialised services required to support and assist victims, complainants and children born as a result of sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeepers. This trust fund, which is currently being established, needs to go further by providing compensation to victims in the form of reparations – the type and payment of which should take into account the sensitivities of that particular context. It should also be in line with best practice guidelines for reparations for sexual violence, as identified by transitional justice practitioners.

But solving the problem is not only up to the UN; it should start at the level of contributing countries. In March this year, the UN Security Council adopted resolution 2272, which aims to ensure that troop- or police-contributing countries’ personnel adhere to the UN standards of conduct and discipline. The resolution also states that entire contingents should be replaced if there is continuous sexual exploitation and abuse committed by their personnel.

This shows that there is increasing recognition for the gravity of these crimes and making progress towards its eradication. Only when the UN moves from strong condemnation to prosecuting violators of UN peace operation mandates, however, will it truly demonstrate its commitment to zero tolerance.

Romi Sigsworth, Gender Specialist, Office of the Executive Director, and Liezelle Kumalo, Junior Researcher, Peace Operations and Peacebuilding, ISS Pretoria

This ISS Today forms part of a series on gender and security.

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