The light blue hats of the United Nations Peacekeepers are known around most of the world as markers of trust and respectability. Deployed into dangerous conflict zones with the aim of helping “countries torn by conflict create the conditions for lasting peace”, UN peacekeepers - now numbering more than 100,000 strong - are sent to places where individual governments can’t, or won’t, intervene.
The men and women that comprise the peacekeepers are drawn from the United Nations’ member states. This fact has a number of benefits: the first, and most obvious, is that the multi-ethnic and multi-cultural backgrounds of peacekeepers working together leads to the type of international cooperation that the United Nations is there to foster in the first place. Another is that it can help the United Nations avoid accusations of nationality-based bias. It is not difficult to see the problems that might arise if a peacekeeping taskforce composed entirely of people of one nation were placed into a country that had a historically tense relationship with it.
As a result, the top country of origin for the more than 100,000 peacekeepers currently serving as of July this year is Ethiopia, having donated 8,333 police, soldiers and otherwise. 6,872 are from Bangladesh. 7,713 are Indian. In comparison, only 336 are from the UK and 434 from Germany.
An endemic problem
Unfortunately, however, peacekeepers aren’t all gleaming bastions of morality. In addition to a number of thefts committed by peacekeepers each year during missions, there is a far more serious problem lurking beneath the surface of the peacekeeper programme. In fact, it is so well recognised that it has acquired its own acronym - the unthreatening sounding ‘SEA’. This acronym stands for Sexual Exploitation and Abuse - where peacekeepers working with the United Nations have used the authority vested in them to abuse and victimise women and children in the countries they are supposed to be helping.
A three-page bulletin signed by the then Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 2003 defined, for the United Nations, what they understood SEA to mean. Sexual Exploitation was defined as “any actual or attempted abuse of a position of vulnerability, differential power, or trust, for sexual purposes, including, but not limited to, profiting monetarily, socially or politically from the sexual exploitation of another”.
The extent of the violence is not to be underestimated. Accordin to annual reports of the total number of complaints made against peacekeepers, 99 complaints were made against police, military and civilian personnel serving under the banner of the United Nations last year. These complaints accused peacekeepers of everything from engaging in transactional sex to exploitative relationships, and even to sexual activity with someone underage.
Given that reporting rates - even in developed economies with relatively progressive attitudes towards sexual assault - can be anywhere from 10 - 15% to even lower, it is not impossible that many unreported attacks by peacekeepers take place each year.
Bringing perpetrators to account
According to the 2003 bulletin, the procedure following an accusation of SEA involves a “proper investigation”. Thereafter, if “there is evidence to support allegations of sexual exploitation or sexual abuse, these cases may... be referred to national authorities for criminal prosecution”. This is perhaps the only sensible way to hold soldiers to account for their actions. Placing peacekeepers under the law of the countries in which they are placed is a recipe for disaster, given the unstable nature of many of the countries where a humanitarian intervention is necessary.
Even worse would be for the United Nations to attempt to decide on their own whether one of their peacekeepers had committed SEA. The first problem is that the United Nations does not have the power to detain foreign soldiers - so any peacekeeper found ‘guilty’ could not be incarcerated in a prison run by the United Nations. Second, given the differing international standards for what constitutes sexual assault, abuse or exploitation, whose law should be taken as inspiration? And even if one were chosen, why should peacekeepers work for the United Nations when they would have to follow different - and potentially far stricter - laws than the ones governing them in their home country?
But the solution - of having peacekeepers governed by the law of their own countries of origin - presents its own problems. These problems make it far harder to bring perpetrators of SEA to justice.
Justice delayed is justice denied
SEA by peacekeepers has been known about for decades. A review by Prince Zeid of Jordan, written as far back as 2005, describes “a perception that peacekeeping personnel who commit acts of sexual exploitation and abuse that constitute crimes under generally accepted standards are not normally subjected to criminal prosecution”. It concludes: “Such perceptions are not without foundation.”
The problems, as outlined in the report, are many. When SEA is reported and investigated, the evidence gathered is frequently “not sufficient under their national law for use in subsequent… proceedings or has not been gathered in a manner required”. Even if evidence is gathered correctly and presented to the peacekeeper’s nation of origin, there are still no guarantees. Prince Zeid writes that these investigations “do not obligate a troop-contributing country to prosecute. A decision whether or not to prosecute is an act of sovereignty.”
The problem of bringing perpetrators to account is therefore particularly difficult. Even when crimes are properly investigated and evidence brought before the perpetrator’s country of origin, if that country decides not to bring charges, then that’s it.
This process itself also takes time. In testimony before the House of Lords Select Committee on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Paula Donovan, Co-Director of AIDS-Free World, described the bureaucratic process, saying: “for reasons that we cannot understand… the United Nations itself puts itself between that victim and justice by taking as long as it needs...This causes incredible delays, and the delays are of course death to a case of sexual abuse and certainly rape. The delays also amount to the obstruction of justice for the victims.”
A British perspective
From a British foreign policy perspective, it would seem that there is little that can be done. Instituting an international law against sexual assault is likely beyond the powers of even our diplomatic service. Convincing other countries to attempt to convict members of their own armed forces is also unlikely. However, alleviating the problem of sexual violence by peacekeepers doesn’t only have to take place after the fact. Preventing the exploitation from happening in the first place would have a far greater impact.
The best thing would be to attempt to properly educate and train peacekeepers - before and while they are on missions - to reduce the likelihood of SEA. In that sense, Britain may be uniquely well placed to have a positive impact.
The House of Lords report from earlier this year by the Sexual Violence in Conflict Select Committee called for the British government to support “mandatory pre-deployment gender training for all peacekeepers” that was “intensive, ongoing and underscored by positive practice”.
What’s more, the UK already has sufficient numbers of experts that have a track record in educating on gender issues. The 2015 report on the government’s National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security recorded that the British government had sent a team of gender experts to Iraq to train Kurdish police forces. We also trained 190 community health workers in Syria, educated more than 200,000 people about FGM in Somalia, held workshops in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, trained more than 300 officials in Burma and supported more training in Afghanistan. Training more experts, or bringing the ones that we already have to the United Nations, is both a politically and logistically feasible goal.
It wouldn’t solve the problem, and it wouldn’t help with bringing criminals to justice. That problem, in the end, may simply be insoluble. But to use our expertise to train peacekeepers and, in the process, prevent up to thousands of victims from being exploited or attacked at all - that would be a good start.
Zachary Spiro is a research assistant at Bright Blue