Every year or so, allegations of sexual misconduct by peacekeepers deployed under the United Nations flag ricochet around global media, shocking international audiences.
A few months ago, a report revealed that Burundian peacekeepers deployed in Central African Republic (CAR) have been extensively involved in the sexual exploitation and abuse of women and children.
It led to heartfelt statements about how such abuses will not be tolerated; how they undermine the capacity and credibility of the UN and its peacekeeping efforts.
The scandal surrounding revelations in 2015 of the violent sexual abuse of children in CAR by peacekeepers from France, Chad and Equatorial Guinea was also followed by such statements, and the adoption of Security Council Resolution 2272, which gives the Secretary-General authority to repatriate peacekeeping units or contingents where there is credible evidence of systemic or widespread sexual exploitation and abuse.
And yet, despite extensive documentation and investigations into the abuses perpetrated by Burundian peacekeepers, the UN has not repatriated them, and abuses have been perpetrated in other contexts, including Liberia, Haiti, South Sudan and Mali.
Why is this the case?
The answer is simple: despite over 20 years of efforts to address this issue, the nature and effects of such abuses on peacekeeping outcomes remains poorly understood and highly underestimated.
This has meant that many officials and personnel treat sexual misconduct as a relatively minor issue, rather than one at the heart of peacekeeping effectiveness.
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The nature and scale of sexual misconduct in peace operations is poorly understood even in peacekeeping circles, largely due to the limited reporting and data collection on these issues and the fact that they are often dismissed as less important than other challenges facing peacekeeping.
Allegations of misconduct have arisen in all peace operations deployed by the UN, to varying levels.
These behaviours are diverse, ranging from sex trafficking, rape and murder to prostitution, the production of pornography and transactional sex, with differing degrees of coercion, consent and criminality.
Perpetrators have targeted adults and children, with the primary victims women and children under the age of 18.
Contrary to popular assumptions, perpetrators are not just uniformed peacekeepers but also civilian peacekeepers, private contractors, aid workers and others associated with peace operations.
The problem is that the behaviours encompassed by the catchall term ‘sexual exploitation and abuse’ are incredibly diverse and it is difficult to identify and address what gives rise to them.
My research has shown that a wide range of local, international, normative and systemic factors contribute to the perpetration of sexual misconduct, and that these have operated differently in different missions.
These factors include the contexts of vulnerability into which peacekeepers are deployed, the material inequalities between peacekeepers and local populations, military rules and cultures, as well as dynamics of masculinity, sexism and racism.
In 2004, a French MONUC civilian peacekeeper who admitted to raping 24 underage girls told investigators: “Over there, the colonial spirit persists. The white man gets what he wants.”
These are not simple things to address.
To date, policy responses — which have been extensive — have revolved around a conduct and discipline approach, which, although useful, fails to get at the heart of some of the driving factors and cultures behind the phenomenon.
Another challenge has been convincing officials at all levels that sexual exploitation and abuse is a serious enough issue to warrant their attention in the context of an already stretched UN peacekeeping capacity and significant other challenges, such as deployment into active conflicts.
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Research in the past has shown how sexual exploitation and abuse affects the perceived impartiality of peace operations and contributes to the long-term entrenchment of transactional sex economies.
My recent research has further documented how sexual misconduct by international interveners affects the goals and outcomes of individual peace operations on multiple levels, thereby undermining core goals of peacekeeping.
Such misconduct compounds human rights abuses and poverty experienced by already vulnerable communities, leading to victims and their children being thrown out of families and communities as a result of the stigma associated with sexual violence or exploitation.
It normalises sexually exploitative and abuse behaviours in post-conflict societies and institutionalises impunity for such behaviours in both host state security sectors (including the military and police forces peacekeepers train and mentor), and among interveners themselves, who export these behaviours into subsequent deployments.
It undermines operational outcomes by diverting resources available for vital human rights and gender work towards sexual exploitation and abuse response, seeding mistrust of interveners amongst local communities, undermining a mission’s impartiality in the eyes of local communities, and diminishing the confidence interveners themselves have in their organisation and in the international peacekeeping and peacebuilding project.
And when peacekeepers perpetrate sexual exploitation and abuse, they contribute to a deepening of the legitimacy crisis currently facing UN peacekeeping, and the UN more broadly.
The UN relies on the commitment of its staff, member states, and the general public internationally to continue its important work, and yet unchecked patterns of sexual misconduct lead to staff attrition, decreased funding, and can bolster the advocacy of those seeking to limit their country’s participation in peacekeeping and peacebuilding internationally.
Ultimately, sexual exploitation and abuse is not an issue on the margins of peacekeeping, but strikes at the heart of the UN’s raison d’être.
Efforts to more effectively prevent and respond to such behaviours must be at the centre of attempts to improve peacekeeping effectiveness now, when that work is more critical, and more under threat, than ever.
Dr Jasmine Westendorf is an academic at La Trobe University, and author of Violating Peace: Sex, Aid and Peacekeeeping, out now with Cornell University Press. A recent address by Dr Westendorf on this issue is being broadcast on ABC RN’s Big Ideas.
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