By Sohaa Khan
Sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) is a recurring problem in United Nations’ peacekeeping missions. Often, peacekeepers commit these abuses against the very people they are supposed to be helping. Due to the multiple parties to the UN and the ensuing jurisdictional overlap, it is difficult to determine who takes charge in prosecuting these acts. SEA is an issue that can drastically undermine a peacekeeping mission; for this problem to be solved, the UN, troop contributing countries (TCCs), and the host country, must work together to implement stricter rules that will deter peacekeepers from participating in SEA.
Allegations of SEA not only harm the victims that experience the crimes, but also endanger the peacekeeping mission itself. The UN sends peacekeepers aiming to promote human rights and gender equality. By committing acts of SEA, they are compromising their mission’s goal, and the local communities question both why they were sent in the first place as well as the integrity of their programs. SEA is not only damaging to the goals of these communities, but it is also a source of mistrust between local populations and peacekeeping missions. This negatively impacts the legitimacy of the UN and of peacekeeping missions. Losing legitimacy impacts the success of future peacekeeping missions since host countries may refuse the UN access.
Potential victims of SEA are usually in need of basic necessities, and they resort to receiving them from peacekeepers. For example, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, SEA mostly involved the exchange of sex for about $1-$3 per encounter or for food which was received later. Teenage girls became sexually involved with Moroccan peacekeepers who promised them food, water, and money. Receiving food from perpetrators ultimately creates a cycle of dependency, as victims are forced to commit sexual acts in order to receive future resources. Victims are sometimes encouraged by their family members to approach peacekeepers if they have problems affording basic necessities. Due to transactions like these—which some describe as rape disguised as prostitution—it can be harder to prosecute perpetrators, as money or food provided afterwards, gives the rape the appearance of a consensual transaction. Since there is an economic motivation to continue, victims have no incentive to report the crime, which further embeds the victim into the cycle of abuse.
What is the UN Currently Doing?
Even though the UN Secretary General announced a zero-tolerance policy forbidding peacekeepers from exchanging anything for sex in 2003, it was not until 2006 that the UN started collecting data on SEA. Investigations are the responsibility of the TCC (troop contributing countries), but there has been debate on whether the host country should be involved. When the UN, TCCs, and host countries fail to investigate, peacekeepers who commit these crimes are given an easy way out. When victims make allegations, the UN usually refers the case to the TCC and can make recommendations or ban a peacekeeper from further peacekeeping missions; this seems to be the extent of the UN’s involvement. By pushing the responsibility to the TCC, the UN is also handing over the responsibility to adequately punish the perpetrator, which is not always done, or brought down to a lesser offense. The UN should take the lead on investigations and allow the TCC and host country to supplement their support.
The UN tried to make peacekeeping missions more inclusive for female peacekeepers and reaffirm their importance in missions by passing Security Council Resolution 1325, which emphasizes equal participation of female peacekeepers in the promotion of peace and security and integrating specialized training for all peacekeepers. The increased presence of female peacekeepers could be a solution to help with victims coming forward, but it should not be the only solution implemented. It is not guaranteed that an increased number of female peacekeepers will deter SEA crimes or encourage victims to speak out; it may also endanger female peacekeepers and put them at risk of becoming victims themselves.
Can More be Done?
One of the most common explanations as to why SEA occurs is that there is inadequate training when it comes to gender disparities. The UN produced a training video in 2013 entitled “To Serve with Pride: Zero Tolerance for Sexual Exploitation and Abuse,” which included stories from SEA survivors from different missions. Seeing the victims and hearing their stories can effectively deter peacekeepers from engaging in SEA and show that their actions have real consequences—even if they are not being reprimanded. There are also community outreach programs that educate others how to recognize SEA and where to report incidents. Even though such measures have been taken, it can still be difficult to report crimes because victims are afraid of stigmatization from their families; many distrust authority figures or have a fear that the perpetrator will retaliate. Unfortunately, these fears hinder reporting, and there are likely many cases that remain unaccounted for. These fears are valid given the circumstances, and it can be difficult to convince a victim to report a crime.
Training all peacekeepers regardless of their gender is important and can lead to fewer SEA incidents. Since peacekeeping missions are composed of multinational and multicultural personnel, the UN should provide practical examples on how gender is relevant in military operations. The UN should train peacekeepers by providing universal ground rules on what can and cannot be done on missions, which may differ from what is considered acceptable in their home countries. Further, the UN should encourage female peacekeepers to take the lead on local outreach, as victims are usually more comfortable reporting SEA to women. Emphasizing the role that gender plays in peacekeeping missions can help victims come forward. Educating those involved in missions about the importance of their role may mean the difference between another SEA incident and one not occurring at all. There are mission-specific measures that can be taken, such as curfews, patrolled off-limit areas for peacekeepers and civilians, ensuring that civilians are not on military camps, troops always wearing their uniforms, and ensuring they stay in their barracks when they are off duty.
Deterring SEA will take more effort from the UN, troop contributing, and host countries. There needs to be stricter rules on missions and harsher consequences for those who commit SEA. Inclusive training can help to educate, but until firmer actions and enforcement are taken on missions, it is unlikely that SEA will be eradicated.
Sohaa Khan is a M.A. Candidate at the School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall. Her specializations are International Law and Human Rights and Asian Studies. She is an Associate Editor and Social Media Associate for the Journal of Diplomacy and International Relations. She completed her Bachelor’s degree from Rutgers University where she double majored in Political Science and Criminal Justice in 2018.