To Defend and Protect: UN Peacekeepers and Sexual Assault

The blue helmets of United Nations Peacekeeping forces are synonymous with the United Nations itself. UN Peacekeepers are volunteers from UN member nations, with most coming from nations on the Indian sub-continent and the wealthier African states. Since their inception after the Suez Crisis, the peacekeeping missions have largely been a global force for good. Peacekeeping missions are often taken as an action of last resort by the Security Council. While the missions have had mixed success rates, they are by-and-large the most effective tool the United Nations has for quelling conflicts and establishing peace. However, peacekeeping missions risk endangering the United Nations brand and losing their value if the soldiers who take part in the missions continue to violate the human rights of those they are supposed to protect. It is essential that these men and women are held to a higher standard if the United Nations is to continue to be a force for peace.

Sexual assault by peacekeeping forces is alarmingly high—these human rights violations cause a negative spillover effect that becomes associated with other United Nations operations. For example, it only takes a Google search of “peacekeeping sexual assault” to turn up a large number of cases, and these represent only those that are reported. Take the most recent allegations, where it took a whistleblower from within the United Nations to bring allegations of sexual assault to light. The litany of allegations includes the 2014 rape of starving children in the Central African Republic, in exchange for food, by French and Chadian peacekeeping forces. While those missions have since been replaced by other forces, it is not difficult to find similar stories of exploitation of the local populace by peacekeepers in other locations, such as Haiti and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Sexual assault is not a new problem for UN peacekeepers. Since the use of peacekeeping missions exploded in popularity in the nineties, peacekeepers have faced constant charges of sexual misconduct; for example, there are allegations of sexual assault against young girls during the 1991 mission to Cambodia.  Every attack on the local population diminishes the number of potential allies for the United Nations on the ground and makes the population hostile to further international humanitarian intervention.

The solution to this crisis is clear. Currently, peacekeepers are taken from their national militaries. While the United Nations touts its rigorous training for peacekeepers, the full effect of these programs remains to be seen. Moreover, the majority of peacekeepers are taken from developing nations. While I believe there are well trained soldiers from the forces of developing nations, I am inclined to believe that training programs in western nations are more rigorous; as western nations generally have a greater ability to expend resources on such programs. According to Jocelyn Coulon, soldiers from developing nations often show up to peacekeeping missions ill-prepared for the mission, lacking supplies and training. I am by no means suggesting that better training can eliminate the scourge of sexual assault (just look at the levels of sexual assault within the US military), but better training by the United Nations can and will reduce exploitation of the local populations. Indeed, initiatives taken by the Pentagon have reduced reported sexual assaults in the US military over the past two years. Furthermore, 3.8 percent of peacekeepers are female. This is an issue. If there are more women in the peacekeeping forces, sexual assault and human rights violations against local populations will decrease.

The final area for reform is the reporting system for human rights violations. The United Nations needs to build a concrete apparatus for peacekeepers to report crimes committed by other peacekeepers and for the local populace to report crimes as well. This apparatus must include independent investigators who are not beholden to the interests of national militaries or peacekeeper generals. Only then can we learn the true depths of this crisis and learn how to develop better strategies to eradicate the issue. A new campaign launched to reform the prosecution process by limiting the legal immunity of the peacekeepers. While this is a good start, the most lasting and strongest reforms must come from within the United Nations starting with the Secretariat and the Department for Peacekeeping Operations. This external campaign is important, but its effect will be severely limited by the change-resistant United Nations.

The United Nations and all peacekeeping forces must do better. Every time a peacekeeper sexually assaults someone, breaks a law, or violates human rights, it irrevocably damages not only that specific peacekeeping mission, but also the integrity of all peacekeeping missions and the very pillars of the United Nations itself. The United Nations cannot afford to lose its integrity as a result of these actions. It is in the best interest of the United Nations to engage in immediate and effective reform of its most prominent program. We must demand better and hold the United Nations to a higher standard, to avoid eroding support for all humanitarian operations.

The image featured in this article was taken by Marie-Lan Nguyen. The original image can be found here

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