Policing the Peacekeepers: The Hidden Story of Sexual Abuse and Exploitation

“I cannot put into words how anguished and angered and ashamed I am by recurrent reports over the years of sexual exploitation and abuse by U.N. forces.” – Ban Ki-moon, United Nations Secretary-General

For almost seven decades, the blue beret has been a symbol of international peace and the global community’s willingness to prevent, manage or resolve violent conflict. However, long-standing allegations of United Nations peacekeepers committing acts of sexual abuse and exploitation during deployments have cast a dark shadow over the reputation of the blue beret and what it stands for.

The problem of sexual exploitation and abuse has been a continual issue since the early 1990s. In Bosnia and Kosovo, UN troops are alleged to have been involved in the local sex trade. This includes allegations of trafficking young women as well as fuelling the demand for local brothels. Given the role of UN peacekeepers in maintaining order and the rule of law, such allegations undermine the credibility of operations by going against the UN’s mandate and adding to the cycle of violence and abuse found in conflict prone areas.

A Peacekeeper providing community out reach in Africa
A Peacekeeper providing community outreach in Africa

The issue attracted global attention when allegations of sexual exploitation surfaced during the ongoing UN mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Multiple reports in 2004 found that UN peacekeepers traded sex for food and other items. Not only did this represent an abuse of the UN’s role in these regions, but also exposed the perverse power dynamics in play. UN troops that were in a position of power and authority were exploiting the vulnerability of local women and girls.

Further investigations found that these were not isolated cases. A study by UNICEF found that in six out of twelve UN peacekeeping locations, the presence of UN peacekeepers coincided with a rise in child prostitution. During the 1992-3 operations in Cambodia, the number of prostitutes rose from 6000 to 25000 women and girls. The list of operations tainted by UN peacekeepers’ conduct is shamefully long and includes Mozambique, East Timor, Liberia, Haiti, Mali, and Eritrea.

Until recently, the scale of the abuse has been matched by the scale of inaction, especially on the part of states contributing to UN peace operations. In 2014, nearly 80 allegations of rape, sexual assault and sex trafficking were made against UN peacekeepers. These figures are optimistic compared to previous years, when almost 100 allegations were recorded in 2013 and almost 130 allegations recorded in 2007. Disturbingly, this doesn’t take into account the effect of under-reporting by sexual abuse victims who may be reluctant to report abuse due to the fear of reprisal or stigmatisation.



In August 2015, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stood down his top official in the Central African Republic after allegations that a 12-year old girl was raped during a house-to-house search conducted by UN police. This is the latest in a series of steps the UN has taken to address the issue.

(source: unece.org)
A look at the scale of global peacekeeping operations (source: unece.org)

Currently, there is a zero tolerance approach towards sexual abuse and exploitation carried out by UN officials. The General Assembly has passed several resolutions implementing stronger reporting mechanisms through the UN Office for Internal Oversight Services. In line with this review, they’ve also increased training for UN officials, and implemented more comprehensive investigation and victim assistance procedures.

Despite UN efforts to stamp out the problem, it continues to persistently undermine continuing peace operations. One reason is based on the pessimistic view that UN peacekeepers are essentially normal military personnel donning a blue beret, and that abuse is inevitable when battle hardened men are placed in positions of power in war-torn countries. However, to take such a view ignores the elevated responsibility of UN officials to not only carry out their military or civilian mandates, but to also embody the hope for a better and more peaceful world that the UN represents. The argument by one UN official in Cambodia in 1993 that “boys will be boys” is simply not good enough.

A better explanation is in the structure of UN peace operations. UN member states contribute their own military personnel to UN peace operations. This is because the UN itself does not have its own military arm, but rather, must coordinate with member states to provide and receive military personnel acting under the UN’s operational control. The state receiving UN peacekeepers must agree to host these troops, and the rights and responsibilities of the contributing state’s personnel are set out in a Status-of-Forces-Agreement. Under these agreements, UN officials often fall under the legal jurisdiction of the contributing country that has sent the personnel to the operation. Therefore, when allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation arise, it is the contributing state that has the right to prosecute the perpetrator, not the host state or the UN.

Victims are denied justice for the harm inflicted upon them since many alleged perpetrators are not properly prosecuted. Until recently, perpetrators were often repatriated to their home countries and were dishonourably discharged, found guilty of a lesser charge, or even allowed to walk free. The knowledge that officials will not be prosecuted by the country they are serving in and that their home countries are often reluctant to admit sexual abuse by their personnel means that prosecution is unlikely. This breeds a culture of impunity that allows abuse to continue.

UN Peacekeepers take a break during operations in the Congo (source: wiki commons)
UN Peacekeepers take a break during operations in the Congo (source: wiki commons)

There is cause to be optimistic that this culture of impunity will be stamped out. Several countries have begun to recognise that prosecuting alleged offenders sends a more positive signal to the international community than repatriating them and not prosecuting. Ban Ki-Moon recently expressed optimism towards India’s pledge to prosecute three well-substantiated cases of sexual abuse and exploitation. There is hope that the UN’s stringent new policy of DNA testing of UN peacekeepers will make investigating cases of sexual abuse easier, particularly when children are conceived.

UN troops on the ground during operations in Haiti

Pakistan has also begun using ad-hoc court martials to trail offenders in Haiti. This involves holding a military trial in the host country, but using the laws and court personnel of the contributor state. This means that prosecutions are more likely to succeed because of the ease of collecting and preserving evidence, and contacting witnesses and victims. It also reassures victims that justice has been served before the offender is repatriated to their home state and made to carry out their sentence. Offenders are guaranteed to have their legal rights upheld since the same legal standards applied in their home country are applied when they are on mission abroad.

Despite this progress, more must be done. Mandatory reporting mechanisms, especially at a local operational level, must be strengthened. Ad-hoc judicial bodies, such as Pakistan’s court martials, much be more widely utilised and extended to cover civilian personnel as well. There should not only be individual disciplinary and criminal liability for UN personnel, but establishing financial liability especially when sexual abuse leads to pregnancy and financial hardship for the victim. Extending the UN’s online vetting system, the Misconduct Tracking System, to military personnel is a way to prevent abuse and exploitation from occurring in the first place. Greater victim-assistance services in partnership with local-community partners will better assist victims of abuse. Increasing the judicial capacity of host states to prosecute some minor criminal and sexual offences  as a constructive state-building exercise, will also act as a deterrent to future offenders.

While there are many grounds for optimism, the problem may get worse before it gets better. More effective reporting and investigative procedures may see abuse numbers rise as the true extent exploitation is revealed and under-reporting exposed. Nevertheless, Ban Ki-moon’s decision to sack the UN’s top official in the Central African Republic is a new turning point. It may be the act required to send the message that the UN is not only an institution that embodies peace, co-operation and human rights, but that behind every institution are the people who work for it and who must bring these values into being.

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