U.N. Peacekeepers Are a Sexual Menace
New reports details allegations of rape by peace troops
United Nations peacekeeping missions deploy where other authorities have ceased to exist or matter. They’re called upon to stop atrocities, often involving systematic rape and sexual abuse by armed groups.
Which makes it all the more disconcerting that peacekeepers themselves are frequently the perpetrators of sexual violence — an old problem that a new U.N. report has finally made official.
According to the report, published by the office of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, 69 allegations of sexual abuse were directed against U.N. personnel serving across 10 peacekeeping missions in 2015, with most of the allegations implicating soldiers and police officers of troop-contributing member states.
In some cases, internal investigations found the allegations to be unsubstantiated, but the majority of cases were either confirmed … or are still under investigation.
It’s hard to overestimate how damaging the peacekeepers’ alleged conduct is to the U.N. and the people who rely on the world body for protection.
Rape survivors can suffer lifelong trauma in addition to unwanted pregnancies. Fifteen of the U.N. cases involved paternity claims. Sexual violence comes with the added risk of sexually transmitted disease. And the kicker — the countries that host peacekeeping missions often have no functioning health system, thus depriving rape victims of medical care.
Needless to say, allegations of rape also seriously undermine the trust that peacekeepers rely upon to fulfill their mission objectives.
A close reading of the report, as well as of earlier investigations of peacekeeping missions, reveals two distinct problems the U.N. faces when it comes to dealing with sexual abuse. The first one is systemic and involves the ways the U.N. deals with these types of allegations. The second is mission-specific — and related to the troop-contributing countries.
Several investigations by NGOs, journalists and U.N.-appointed committees have run into an institutional unwillingness to take seriously allegations of rape and sexual abuse. “The manner in which U.N. agencies responded to the allegations was seriously flawed,” was the verdict of an independent commission reviewing the conduct of U.N. officials after the peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic came under scrutiny in 2015.
“The head of the U.N. mission in CAR failed to take any action to follow up on the allegations; […] Meanwhile, both UNICEF and U.N. human rights staff in CAR failed to ensure that the children received adequate medical attention and humanitarian aid, or to take steps to protect other potential victims identified by the children who first raised the allegations.”
And when a whistleblower leaked these allegations to French authorities, U.N. leadership fired him instead of, say, speeding up the internal investigation. U.N. organizational culture favors ignoring a problem until it — hopefully — goes away. This would be scandalous even related to other criminal activities, but in the case of rape and sexual abuse victims need immediate medical attention to minimize the risk of serious and long-term consequences.
The reluctance of U.N. leadership to act on allegations of rape may have something to do with its reliance on troop-contributing member states. The U.N. actually has no legal means to bring perpetrators of rape to trial, as this authority lies with the individual member states, which may be even less inclined to hold their soldiers accountable than the U.N. is.
At a time when peacekeeping missions are larger and more dangerous than ever, the U.N. might also be unwilling to anger troop-contributing countries with allegations like these, as it relies on the same nations to staff future missions.
But these institutional challenges only matter if a rape has already been committed. The U.N. report found dramatic differences in the number of rape allegations between different missions, so there seem to be opportunities for the prevention of sexual abuse by peacekeepers on a mission-by-mission basis.
More than half of all allegations concerned just two missions — the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic — MINUSCA — and the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or MONUSCO.
MONUSCO is the largest peacekeeping operation with around 20,000 soldiers and policemen. MINUSCA is also quite large but only fields about half as many personnel as MONUSCO does. Both missions report vastly more rape cases per troop than other missions do, so size isn’t exclusively responsible for the higher number of allegations in Congo or CAR.
The report helpfully provides the nationalities of all soldiers and police officers involved in the allegations. The majority of them hail from countries that have huge domestic problems with sexual violence themselves.
It should be obvious to mission planners, for example, that troops from Congo are prone to these types of criminal activity. After all, the Congolese army has deployed rape as a weapon of war against its own population. Seven of the 22 rape cases in the Central African Republic implicate Congolese troops.
The U.N. itself has acknowledged this. In the case of the CAR, the report says that because the mission was “re-hatted” from an earlier African Union mission, with troop contingents already in place, participating soldiers didn’t undergo the usual pre-mission training and screening.
But rape allegations didn’t just target troops from developing countries. One of the highest-profile abuse cases in 2015 involved the rape of several children by French soldiers in the Central African Republic. These soldiers were deployed under a U.N. mandate, but not officially part of the U.N. mission, so their cases don’t appear in the report.
Police and military personnel from Canada, Germany, South Africa, Tanzania and Senegal were also implicated in other missions, including in MONUSCO.
Apart from the nationality of the perpetrator, the nature of the mission seems to correlate with the greatest risk of sexual violence. The overwhelming majority of all allegations were lodged against troops deployed as part of the most dangerous “stabilization” missions — such as those in Mali, CAR and Congo — where the U.N. is essentially the only functioning authority left.
With more of these missions on the horizon — Yemen and Libya are likely additions to the U.N.’s roster in the coming months — U.N. peacekeeping leadership needs to figure out, fast, how to protect vulnerable people from its own peacekeepers.