The UN defines sexual abuse as “actual or threatened physical intrusion of a sexual nature, whether by force or under unequal or coercive conditions” and sexual exploitation as “any actual or attempted abuse of position of vulnerability, differential power or trust, for sexual purposes, including, but not limited to, profiting monetarily, socially or politically from the sexual exploitation of another”.
This definition has been interpreted to cover a wide range of behaviour including: inappropriate relationships between staff, any relationships between staff and locals, transactional sex (the majority of recent allegations), sexual harassment, acts of sexual violence and child abuse.
Sexual violence was defined in international law by the UN's International Criminal Tribunal in Rwanda as "any act of a sexual nature which is committed on a person under circumstances which are coercive”.
While acts of sexual exploitation and abuse may or may not be criminal, sexual violence is considered a crime under international law and under the laws of the vast majority of nations globally. Various UN bodies have called for all states to reform their legislation to ensure that sexual violence is always treated as a criminal act.
The current approach to sexual exploitation and abuse in UN peacekeeping makes no distinction between acts of sexual violence and other forms of exploitation and abuse, the official statistics do not even track the number of cases of sexual violence.
Is this a problem that just effects UN Peacekeepers?
No. Sexual violence exists throughout society, and particularly in fragile and conflict settings. It affects all peacekeeping, not just UN peacekeeping, and indeed some of the allegations of violence made against UN peacekeepers refer to the actions of troops while they were serving under previous African Union or national peacekeeping missions before they were “rehatted” into the UN.
Even within UN peacekeeping problems are not limited to troops or police. Many allegations centre around civilian experts seconded to missions. Indeed, recent figures suggest that civilian experts are the cause of a disproportionate number of allegations.
However our campaign focuses on UN police and troops because:
There are specific disciplinary and jurisdictional factors that relate to UN police and troops which require a specific response from the UN and the Security Council, the bodies responsible for mandating and commissioning these contingents
Member states are paid for their contribution of troops and police. This creates a contractual relationship within which it is reasonable and possible for the UN to place conditions upon deployment
UN police and troops are the core of UN peacekeeping. They are what makes a mission a mission. The standards of behaviour they set are therefore likely to resonate throughout the mission
Matthew Rycroft, at the time UK Permanent Representative to the UN, once said peacekeeping is the 'jewel in the UN crown'. UN Peacekeeping is and should remain the gold standard for peacekeeping. It should lead by example. If the issue of sexual violence can be addressed among those that wear blue helmets, this will have enormous normative value, and dissuade perpetrators of all stripes.
What has the UN’s approach been thus far?
The UN has a “zero tolerance” approach to any form of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse. This was recommended by Zeid bin Ra'ad Zeid al-Hussein, then Jordanian Permanent Representative to the UN, and subsequently United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, in his 2005 report. Zeid felt that such an approach was needed to combat the culture of casual acceptance of sexual abuse to be found in UN missions, a culture best summed up by Yasushi Akashi, the head of a previous UN mission to Cambodia (UNTAC) who when challenged on the subject responded that "boys will be boys".
This approach, coupled with intensive training, may help change the culture of UN missions. However, it is fundamentally an administrative and disciplinary approach - a human resources policy. This is important when it comes to non-criminal sexual impropriety, but sexual crimes require a criminal justice response.
Such an approach can therefore only be effective if coupled with effective measures to make sure that sexual violence is treated as crime and concerted attempts are made to prosecute perpetrators.
What is the new Secretary-General’s approach?
The new Secretary-General, António Guterres, outlined his approach in a report earlier this year, and went further in a meeting on the 18th September. Regular factsheets succinctly summarise the steps taken. The approach takes several very welcome and necessary steps: recruiting victims’ advocates, empowering a special coordinator for sexual exploitation and abuse, and looking to rebuild trust between the countries that contribute troops (TCCs) and the UN Secretariat, particularly on the issue of accountability via a voluntary compact with TCCs.
This compact with TCCs is an ambitious, but useful intervention, which will make it clear which nations are serious about combating sexual abuse. However, it will not be binding and, like much of the Secretary-General’s agenda thus far, is necessary but relies for its success on additional significant measures being taken to combat the culture of impunity that currently cloaks UN peacekeeping.
What does the UN’s current accountability regimen look like?
The UN’s accountability framework was secured by the landmark Security Council resolution 2272. This resolution gives the UN the power to repatriate entire contingents of peacekeepers if they find that sexual exploitation and abuse is widespread and systemic within that contingent, or if the contingent fails to cooperate with investigations or requests to share information. It is a powerful tool for securing justice, but it does not go far enough.
Investigation processes are confusing and opaque. It is unclear where responsibility lies at any given moment for moving the investigation forward, and its focus is on internal disciplinary procedures, not criminal prosecutions in the case of crimes.
The process is reactive, not proactive. Steps can only be taken to repatriate a contingent once acts of abuse have been reported. The process therefore doesn’t protect victims from potential perpetrators, only repeat offenders.
Steps need to be taken to operationalise the resolution. In particular the terms “widespread” and “systemic” need to be defined, and a trigger mechanism needs to be established to ensure troops are repatriated when that threshold is reached.
Our campaign seeks to change that.
Won’t this approach dissuade nations from contributing troops?
We believe that peacekeeping can only be effective if peacekeepers are trusted by local communities. Sexual violence erodes that trust. We believe passionately in peacekeeping, but peacekeepers must be accountable or they will not be trusted, and they will not be able to keep the peace.
Further, crently peacekeeping is under resourced, undermanned, and overstretched. However, resources are going to be stretched far tighter still as a consequence of significant cuts. One possible result is a significant reduction in the number of troops deployed.
UNA-UK have highlighted the risks of this approach, but there are also opportunities. Currently the UN is has such an urgent need for troops that it finds it difficult to insist on high standards for fear of reducing supply. But were peacekeeping to be reorganized as a smaller, more elite force, then the UN could afford to be pickier in the troops it selects.
In the meantime, the main concern is not that forces cannot be generated, but that the forces that the UN deploy will be confined to barracks to avoid further incident, the very opposite of the “people centred” approach to peacekeeping we look to promote. But here again effective accountability mechanisms are vital in giving force commanders the confidence to send troops off base knowing that if an incident of sexual violence occurs, processes are in place to deal with the matter fairly and effectively.
Aren't you just unfairly picking on Troop Contributing Countries?
Troop Contributing Countries (TCCs) play a vital role within UN peacekeeping, indeed peacekeeping would not be possible without them. They take the risks other states are not willing to take, since peacekeeping began over 3,500 peacekeepers have paid with their lives. We should always remain grateful for the contribution they make.
We also need to be conscious of the legitimate grievances of TCCs regarding the occasionally high handed treatment they feel they receive from other nations and organs of the UN. TCCs often feel ignored, scapegoated, under-resourced and unappreciated, and not without cause. The Secretary-General's approach of working in partnership with TCCs should help to address some of these issues, but further vigilance is always needed.
Nevertheless, contributing troops or police is not an obligation but a privilege for which TCCs are rewarded. It is right and fair that these rewards come attached to standards and expectations. Further, implementing the ability to criminally prosecute acts of sexual violence should not be controversial, and should have benefits for the TCC domestically.
It is important to acknowledge the racial and colonial power dynamics that underpin many of the relationships between TCCs and Security Council and donor nations. Not enough research or attention has been paid to this issue.
This dynamic increases the urgency of persuading countries of the global north that they have a moral obligation to fully participate in peacekeeping too. It would however be very wrong to suggest that recalcitrant TCCs all come from the global south, and exemplars of best practice from the north. Some of the most commendable examples of best practice (listed under good news stories) come from countries such as Brazil, Morocco and South Africa, whereas some of the worst allegations have concerned troops from the global north.
What is required is objective evidence-based criteria for banning TCCs from contribution, and an impartial arbiter to make the decisions.This is why both the UN and TCCs – and, most importantly, victims – would be well served by establishing objective and evidence-based baseline criteria for contributing troops to UN peacekeeping missions. This would take the decision out of the hands of the overstretched Department for Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), thus avoiding both the political sensitivities of UN officials being seen as “evaluating” TCCs and reducing the risk of selectivity and politicisation that TCCs fear. Above all, it would mean that the Security Council would not be waiting for abuse to occur before it acted, but would be taking proactive steps to ensure that troops and police cannot be deployed unless their contributing country has demonstrated a willingness and ability to prosecute personnel who commit sexual crimes.. The UN already runs similar lists with respect to the use of child soldiers (in response to Security Council resolution 1612) and sexual violence in conflict (in response to Security Council resolution 1960, which could form the basis for a peacekeeping banned list).
Furthermore it is important not to conflate solidarity with people from former colonial nations of the global south with solidarity with political elites in government. Troops and police from such nations are frequently victims too: peacekeeper on peacekeeper sexual violence is a serious concern, and peacekeepers are not well served by being sent into harm's way without sufficient legal safeguards and protections. It is the governments of TCCs that benefit most from peacekeeping, and the impacts of these benefits have been mixed for their populations - peacekeeping money appears to enhance the rule of law but potentially also subsidises the militarisation of society. It is therefore right that this money come alongside an insistence that the governmental beneficiaries adhere to rules which will benefit their own populations most of all.
We stand in solidarity with the populations, police and troops of all TCCs worldwide, in calling upon their governments to live up to their responsibilities with regards to the prosecution of sexual violence.