16 Feb Guest Post: UN Peacekeepers and Sexual Exploitation and Abuse
[Dr Melanie O’Brien, TC Beirne School of Law & Asia-Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, University of Queensland.]
Since December, there have been multiple announcements of new allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) by peacekeepers, and criticism of the UN for the handling of these allegations. These allegations all relate to SEA committed by peacekeepers in the Central African Republic, usually by soldiers who are part of the UN’s Multidimensional Integrated
Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA). Allegations of peacekeeper SEA are not new. In fact, I have been researching on this topic for almost 13 years. Thirteen years of begging for accountability, and still the SEA continues. I have even written on how the ICC should not shy away from holding peacekeepers accountable for SEA when it occurs in the context of armed conflict and/or crimes against humanity, based on the seriousness of the offence. That is, the role of peacekeepers as protectors of civilians means that they are a special category of offender that should be held accountable. My call for the ICC to step up stems from the fact that sending states, which hold exclusive jurisdiction over their military and police personnel serving in peace operations, are not investigating or prosecuting SEA offences.
The UN’s Conduct and Discipline Unit (CDU), developed a decade ago in response to allegations of sexual abuse by peacekeepers, is not fully transparent. UN annual reporting of statistics on SEA does not ‘name and shame’ states involved, which means that the UN’s follow-ups to states involved go unheeded. Why should states bother if nobody knows it’s them? Last year Ban Ki-Moon finally announced that he would ’name and shame.” Months have dragged by, but it seems that perhaps this is actually happening, with the most recent allegations naming the Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo as sending states, and the UN announcing that Burundi peacekeepers have been repatriated from MINUSCA. ”Naming and shaming” means greater transparency. It also enables the international community and a sending state’s nationals to pressure that sending state to take action with investigation and prosecution. Since reporting began, from a high of almost 400 allegations, we have dropped to under 100 allegations per year. Yet this is still far too many. The UN has been unwilling to rock the boat of sending states’ generosity, in case the UN is no longer able to procure enough personnel for missions. Missions are already understaffed (and under resourced). However, without proper vetting from sending states, the UN tendency to take whoever they can get it is jeopardising mission success. SEA breaches the trust between host communities and peacekeepers, which creates insecurity and uncertainty in which a peace operation cannot successfully operate. The conduct also damages the reputation of the UN.
There are also entrenched problems within the UN.l. The recent scandal has revealed a disregard for human rights, evidence by inaction to sexual abuse allegations.It also exemplified the ongoing targeting and condemnation of whistleblowers. The most recent whistleblower has been vindicated, but his time in the spotlight has brought many people forward who have likewise been attacked for reporting in-house human rights violations. In this way, the UN needs to clean house and maintain only employees of integrity. This is not to say that there are not people in the UN working hard and ethically: I met a Samoan police officer working with the UN Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS) CDU who took great pride in her work and championed the importance of the standards set by her team. Clearly, we need more people like her in the UN (not to mention a greater gender balance in missions). What we should be doing is empowering UN Civilian Police (CivPol) to act like police in relation to criminal allegations against mission personnel. CivPol are trained police officers who have the ability to conduct proper investigations, including taking on-site witness statements and safeguarding secure chains of evidence.
However it is not the UN who has sole responsibility here; it is time sending states step up to the plate. There is an inherent human rights component to the SEA. Peacekeeper SEA is derived from entrenched gender inequality and patriarchal attitudes where women are perceived as unimportant and as chattel of men to be used when and how men see fit. There is also an element of bigotry and discrimination involved in the SEA, where peacekeepers are committing crimes they may not necessarily commit at home, both out of opportunity (a common reason for the commission of crime and enhanced by conflict/post-conflict circumstances and the powerful position of peacekeepers), but also out of a perception that the local community are lower in social standing than they are. In addition, the number of allegations relating to SEA of children is substantial. Does this indicate an issue of paedophilia that states need to be specifically dealing with? There is definitely a need for criminological, especially psychology, studies of this ‘phenomenon’. Sending states need to be addressing these social issues as a root cause, targeting education and social structures.
SEA by peacekeepers is a human rights violation (or rather, it violates many human rights). It is termed ‘misconduct’, but let’s stop calling it that and minimising the behaviour. It is criminal conduct, and states must take action to eliminate these crimes. Punishment of criminal conduct is a crucial component of preventive justice. Firstly, States must ensure they have the legislative means to prosecute their personnel. This means having the substantive law that covers this particular conduct; many states lack the specific provisions to prosecute sexual exploitation of adults. States must enact such legislative provisions, which reflect the imbalance in power dynamic between the peacekeeper and victims, and the exchange in goods/services/money that takes place. These provisions must include appropriate and proportionate punishment. In memoranda of understanding to contribute personnel, states must guarantee they will carry out investigation and prosecution using the proper provisions (as opposed to minor offences). States also need to establish extra-territorial application of the substantive law. Once these capabilities are in place, the sending state must make very clear to its personnel that commission of crimes will not be allowed to take place with impunity. A demonstration of action by states will contribute to prevention of peacekeeper SEA.
The UN and its member states champion the rule of law and human rights in states in the midst of conflict or in post-conflict disarray. We need the UN and its member states to practice what they preach.