Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in UN Peacekeeping

Demetrius Wijesinghe

United Nations (UN) Peacekeeping was created in the aftermath of the Second World War with the aim to assist countries plagued by conflict in transitioning to peace (Peacekeeping, UN, 2019). Despite widely publicised failures in Rwanda and Srebrenica, UN peacekeeping missions have, largely, proven to be effective. Since 1945, UN peacekeepers have undertaken over 60 missions and negotiated 172 peace settlements that have brought an end to regional conflicts, and enabled people in over 45 countries to participate in free and fair elections. Several studies conducted by think tanks, such as the RAND Corporation, claim that every two out of three peacekeeping missions are successful (RAND Corporation, 2005). Despite its successes and the necessity of peacekeeping in an era where conflict is widespread, one of the most prominent black marks on the UN’s record has been its issue with holding peacekeepers accountable for sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA).

Between 2004 and 2007, 134 Sri Lankan soldiers deployed as part of the United Nations Stabilisation Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) were involved in a sex-ring in which nine children between the ages of 12 and 15 were reported to have been sexually abused on several occasions (The Independent, 2019). The soldiers exploited children in a country where poverty is rife - promising them clean water and small portions of food in exchange for sex. The Sri Lankan government repatriated 114 of the 134 accused soldiers, however only 9 of these individuals were ‘punished’ with no details as to what these punishments entailed (The Independent, 2017). When a teenage girl in Haiti reported that she had been raped and sodomised by a Sri Lankan peacekeeper, the Sri Lankan government tasked a general suspected of war crimes during the country’s civil war with investigating the allegation (Dudds, 2017). The general did not speak to the victim, nor the medical professionals that treated her. He did however, find that the peacekeeper in question was not guilty and allowed him to resume his duties. In fact, Sri Lanka has never prosecuted a single soldier accused of SEA while serving in a peacekeeping mission overseas. This form of impunity was seen in the gruelling civil war that took place in the country from 1983 to 2009, where the government consistently refused requests for independent investigations into several reports of rape camps, mass killings, torture and other war crimes that were suspected to be taking place in the north of the country.

This is not the only instance in which the UN has been scrutinised for accepting peacekeeping contingents from states that have not, and do not, hold their military accountable for SEA. The UN was also criticised for accepting peacekeepers from countries such as the Congo given the several allegations of rape, torture and murder charged against the Congolese military. The reason for this criticism is that it has been proven that individuals who commit such atrocities when operating as soldiers tend to repeat those actions when serving as peacekeepers. Following the conclusion of the civil war in Sri Lanka, one woman came forward to the Associated Press (AP) to report that she had been raped several times at an army camp during times of conflict (Dudds, 2017). She identified the soldier after being offered a series of photographs to consult upon.

That soldier went on to become a UN peacekeeper.

Allegations of SEA have questioned the integrity of UN peacekeeping for over two decades. According to an investigation conducted by the AP in 2017, between 2004 and 2016, the UN received nearly 2,000 allegations of SEA against peacekeepers operating under their banner (Dodds, 2017b). What is striking, however, is that these allegations are not exclusive to military contingents; they also include the civilian or ‘non-uniformed’ members of the peacekeeping mission. Although both are colleagues working towards the same objective, civilian peacekeepers and military personnel are different in several ways. For instance, the UN does not have a standing military; therefore the UN’s member states offer personnel from their national militaries to the organisation for peacekeeping missions. Military peacekeepers are not considered UN staff. The civilian section of peacekeeping missions, however, are composed of individuals who have applied for the job through the UN’s regular careers website, making them employees of the UN.

To understand this further, I want to highlight a key difference between ‘uniformed’ and ‘non-uniformed’ peacekeepers and how they are held accountable for acts of SEA. Firstly, military peacekeepers operate under a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) and Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between the Troop Contributing Country (TCC) and the state in which the peacekeeping operation is taking place (United Nations General Assembly, 1990). Both the MOU and SOFA provide military contingents with immunity from being prosecuted by the host nation in exchange for the TCC assuring the host state that they will hold their personnel accountable for any criminal behaviour. Civilian staff, on the other hand, not being military personnel, therefore are not protected by the MOU or SOFA and are treated the same as any foreign national; meaning that jurisdiction over UN civilian staff lies in the hands of the host state. Secondly, in regards to military contingents, the jurisdictional barriers are clear. Many TCCs have proven to lack the political will to prosecute their military, despite overwhelming evidence of human rights violations. Neither the UN nor the host state has the authority to prosecute military peacekeepers - no matter how heinous the crime - which makes it potentially impossible to ensure accountability for criminal behaviour without the sincere cooperation of TCCs.

With regards to civilian peacekeepers, the issue is not as straightforward. Typically, there should not be a problem in holding civilian staff accountable for criminal acts of SEA given that it is only logical to believe that a state would be more than willing to prosecute a foreign individual for a crime against its own people. This highlights a need to question the UN’s highest-ranking officials. Behind closed doors, the UN’s top officials decided that certain host states are not competent enough to carry out criminal investigations and trials to required standards (Daigle & Dodds, 2017). Therefore, when a member of the UN’s civilian staff commits a criminal sexual offence in a country that is in the process of transitioning from conflict to peace, top UN personnel bypass the local government. The offender in question is subjected only to administrative procedures suited for non-criminal offences and is protected from any form of criminal justice. Therefore, UN civilian staff accused of even the most atrocious forms of SEA such as rape and sexual abuse of children will, at most, lose their jobs - whereas military personnel may face imprisonment in their homelands.

It would not be a stretch to conclude that the UN’s reluctance for foreign policies to punish their own staff is a tactical procedure to protect the name of the organisation. If this is the case, it is paradoxical that the UN urges its TCCs to take action against rights violators whilst exercising the same lack of political will as the very institutions they criticise.

The focus of most academics and policy-makers has been the allegations surrounding military contingents offered to the UN by their TCCs. Holding military peacekeepers accountable for SEA is a task that can be challenging for the UN, given that the jurisdiction for criminal sexual offences by military personnel lies in the hands of the TCC that sent them. It is indisputable that the UN can do more to pressure TCCs into holding their peacekeepers accountable for SEA. In reality, however this is a very difficult task, and with civilian peacekeepers, in particular, it is noteworthy that the UN does have the authority to take action.

So, how do we end this impunity?

The AIDS-Free World’s Code Blue Campaign has proposed a bold, but potentially revolutionary, measure to tackle the lack of accountability that has tarnished the integrity of UN peacekeeping. The Code Blue Campaign has suggested an independent Special Court Mechanism, which has been received with enthusiasm by ambassadors, government officials, international jurists, academics and experts on sexual violence (Code Blue Campaign, 2018). The Special Court Mechanism would have a team approved by, and would report to UN member states. Its investigators, lawyers and personnel would be given the required legal authority to conduct criminal investigations. The judiciary would be composed of pre-qualified international judges, and the Court itself would be nimble and activate when and where required, allowing victims and alleged perpetrators to participate in trials and ensure that justice is served.

The Code Blue Campaign believes that the UN should be relieved of the duty to hold perpetrators of SEA accountable and this authority should be transferred to the Special Court Mechanism. They argue that this would end the issue of conflicting interests, and victims of SEA would no longer have to report offences to the same organisation shielding the individuals who committed them (Code Blue Campaign, 2018).. The Code Blue Campaign also explains that victims could report sexual offences to the Court’s intake offices stationed near peacekeeping bases and would be given independent and impartial responses in return.

The primary role of the Special Court Mechanism is to investigate alleged cases of SEA and prosecute the accused. When thinking about crimes committed by the UN’s non-uniformed staff, it is the state hosting the peacekeeping mission that has primary jurisdiction. However, this is often not put into practice given that host governments and judicial systems are often deemed incompetent of carrying out their duties by the UN, which has led to a lack of accountability for civilian peacekeepers. The Special Court Mechanism would relieve the host state of these responsibilities and ensure a fair and impartial investigation and prosecution of the alleged offender.

Peacekeeping missions are undoubtedly one of the UN’s most effective and necessary instruments to ensure international peace and security as set out in its Charter over seventy years ago. It is, however, paradoxical to authorise a mission with the intention of creating peace and allowing those who rape, abuse and exploit vulnerable people to get away with such violations. This may seem like an optimistic outlook, but if the UN wants to reassure its supporters and the international community of the saliency and necessity of peacekeeping, they must ensure that any individual, whether they be uniformed or not, is held accountable for criminal sexual offences. To do this, a transformative solution is needed, and the Special Court Mechanism proposed by the Code Blue Campaign is a step in the right direction.


Works Cited

Code Blue Campaign (2018). A Proposal For Change. Retrieved from https://static1.squarespace.com/static/514a0127e4b04d7440e8045d/t/5c09421d0ebbe8fd3597a348/1544110621465/Code+Blue+Campaign+-+A+Proposal+for+Change+-+2018.pdf


Daigle, K. & Dodds, P. (2017). UN Peacekeepers: How a Haiti child sex ring was whitewashed. (2017).  The Associated Press. Retrieved from https://apnews.com/96f9ff66b7b34d9f971edf0e92e2082c


Dodds P. (2017).  AP Exclusive: UN child sex ring left victims but no arrests. Associated Press News. Retrieved from https://apnews.com/e6ebc331460345c5abd4f57d77f535c1


Dodds, P. (2017b). UN Peacekeepers In Haiti Implicated In In Sex Ring. The Independent. Retrieved from https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/un-haiti-peacekeepers-child-sex-ring-sri-lankan-underage-girls-boys-teenage-a7681966.html


RAND Corporation (2005). Media Resources. Retrieved from https://www.rand.org/news/press/2005/02/18.html


The Independent (2019). Sex abuse by Sri Lankan peacekeepers in Haiti reveals cracks in UN system. Retrieved from https://www.independent.ie/world-news/sex-abuse-by-sri-lankan-peacekeepers-in-haiti-reveals-cracks-in-un-system-35758310.html


United Nations General Assembly (1990). Comprehensive Review of the Whole Question of Peacekeeping Operations In All Their Aspects. United Nations. Retrieved from https://undocs.org/a/45/594


United Nations Peacekeeping (2019). About us. Retrieved from https://peacekeeping.un.org/en/about-us


RAND Corporation (2005). Media Resources. Retrieved from https://www.rand.org/news/press/2005/02/18.html

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