Sexual Abuse by UN Peacekeepers: A Global Scandal that Needs Urgent Action - Seeker's Thoughts

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Sexual Abuse by UN Peacekeepers: A Global Scandal that Needs Urgent Action

The United Nations recognizes the urgency of combatting sexual exploitation and abuse among peacekeepers as an immediate priority, yet more needs to be done by this organization.

Photo by Lum3n:

What we know

In recent years, the UN has taken steps to combat sexual exploitation and abuse among peacekeepers; however, more needs to be done.

Unchecked patterns of sexual misconduct detract from the UN's essential work by contributing to staff attrition, decreasing funding, and heightening advocacy by those looking to limit their nation's participation in peacekeeping missions. Their effects can also have lasting ramifications for local communities as sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeepers undermine operational outcomes by diverting resources away from operational matters towards investigating allegations; sowing distrust within local communities against interveners; and decreasing trust within international societies about UN's overall effectiveness.

Understanding the motivations of those responsible is crucial in order to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeepers. The UN should incorporate into their disciplinary process an examination of social identities--including masculinities, gender norms and power relations--constructed within various environments, which influence sexual behavior. Understanding how these factors shape sexual behaviors will assist efforts at preventing exploitation and abuse by peacekeepers.

Even amid widespread outrage at allegations of sexual violence by European soldiers serving in the Central African Republic, the UN has failed to provide victims with long-term psychological and medical support; furthermore, no comprehensive investigation of these cases has taken place - an unacceptable failure.

Time has come for the United Nations (UN) to ensure all of its personnel--civilian and military alike--are held responsible for their actions on the job, including repatriation when necessary. They should establish clear standards of conduct and discipline that include commitments to investigating and prosecuting sexual violations committed within their ranks.

FRONTLINE producer Ramita Navai's documentary "UN Sex Abuse Scandal" details the UN's failure to address sexual abuse by personnel of uniformed organizations. We recently spoke with her about her work and how she found individuals who had previously gone undetected as victims of such abuse by identifying victims for whom no identification had ever existed before.

Watch the entire interview here.

What we don’t know

FRONTLINE producer Ramita Navai spent an entire year traveling across Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic to meet victims of sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers. Here she shares what she learned about deterring abuse, why so few women report it, and a lack of criminal accountability.

On paper, UN forces -- also known as blue helmets -- must adhere to stringent rules regarding sexual relations with underage girls and paying for sexual services; in reality however, due to power imbalance in conflict zones this code of conduct is often violated, leading to many engaging in illegal sexual relations as a source of income.

Researchers recently conducted a comprehensive investigation of sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeepers in Haiti. One disturbing finding revealed that women and girls living near communities hosting these missions are being exploited, abused or abandoned to raise their own children by male peacekeepers - something which has persisted over decades.

One factor contributing to its broken nature is that there is no clear system. The United Nations and troop-contributing countries don't perform risk analyses or regularly review cases of abuse to try and stop it happening in the first place; rather, victims must approach a special UN office called Conduct and Discipline that provides medical, psychological and legal support independent from any investigation; sometimes this office also gives victims money from its mission's petty cash fund for essential items they might require during an incident.

However, these offices cannot initiate investigations on their own; it falls to the home country of a soldier to decide whether or not a case should be pursued; even then, many cases remain unresolved. That's why activists like Aids Free World's Donovan are calling on the UN to create a system which would enable victims of war crimes to have representation before a court of law.

Pakistan and Bangladesh both claim they take allegations of abuse seriously and carefully screen their troops, but more comprehensive reforms need to be implemented for soldiers deployed within these nations, including extraterritorial justice for crimes committed abroad.

What we need to do

The UN's long-awaited report on sexual exploitation of children by peacekeepers in Central African Republic has finally been made available and serves as an indictment of its failure to address crimes committed against vulnerable children by its personnel.

The report contains several recommendations of note, such as increasing staff at headquarters level to handle an increasing number of allegations and investigations and clearer guidelines on how to handle cases of misconduct by its personnel. But CRIN remains concerned that this report fails to address its core issue: that UN personnel in places like DRC cannot prevent and prosecute SEA from occurring, lacking capacity on the field for doing so.

Understand why this occurs is of vital importance. It is not simply due to personal ethics or an intention of helping troubled places; rather it points out wider structural issues within an organisation and its member states which contribute to an environment where those engaging in SEA crimes remain undeterred by sanctions or punishment.

Gender myths pervading international institutions contribute to an unwillingness to confront sexual violence head on, creating an atmosphere in which moral failures cannot be disassociated from context in which soldiers operate. Any efforts at decoupling moral failings from context must account for how gender norms form people's identities and determine what counts as deviation or deviance; especially women peacekeepers whose ranks tend toward being overly masculine environments where conflict over dominance, power and privilege might arise.

We have also found that many individuals in the field believe that female peacekeepers are necessary to address sexual abuse among UN personnel. This misconception serves only as an effective diversion from establishing better, more robust, transparent systems for interrogating, investigating, preventing and prosecuting uniformed personnel engaging in sexually abusive behaviour; rather than solely targeting women it must focus on changing cultural and institutional factors that enable such behaviour by all personnel on UN missions.

Why we need to do it

Every year, allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeepers deployed under the UN flag make headlines around the globe, shocking international audiences. Such acts breach trust between communities served by the UN and itself while undermining effectiveness of its mission and credibility as an organization overall.

No matter the widespread outrage and repeated calls for action, prosecution of peacekeepers for sexual misconduct remain rare. One factor contributing to this lack of action may be that, unlike other international forces, those deployed under the UN flag are subject to national laws rather than universal international law; as a result, investigating allegations often falls upon troop-contributing countries, who often fail to act appropriately upon allegations made of abuse against peacekeepers. It is therefore vital that UN, media, and civil society groups exert pressure on these nations so that abuse allegations are taken seriously and treated transparently by these countries so they respond more seriously and transparently when accused.

Research by our peacekeeping researchers has demonstrated how patterns of sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeepers negatively impacts both local and international participants' lives. They encompass an array of behaviors - from trafficking children for sexual exploitation, producing pornography, transactional sex and violence with differing degrees of coercion, consent and criminality; perpetrators do not need be limited to uniformed peacekeepers but can include police officers, soldiers and civilian personnel associated with missions - targeting adults or children at both workplaces or outside them

How UN missions address sexual exploitation and abuse varies significantly based on local, national, and international factors operating differently across missions - this may include vulnerable contexts where peacekeepers are deployed; military rules and cultures; gender dynamics; power relationships; as well as systems of sexism or racism that exist among them.

To address these problems, the first step should be strengthening the UN's ability to collect and analyze data. This would allow for more contextual interpretation of numbers reported by the misconduct tracking system which currently only provides snapshots. Furthermore, strengthening UN missions' data-collection capacity would increase their capacity to investigate abuse allegations and prosecute perpetrators more efficiently.