UN peacekeepers have become a near unquestioned part of international politics, their distinctive blue helmets known all over the world. They are one of the most visible arms of the UN, and have become one of the first things that comes to the minds of many when the UN is mentioned. According to the United Nations, UN peacekeeping ‘helps countries navigate the difficult path from conflict to peace.’ The UN lauds it as being one of the most effective tools available, suggesting that its unique strengths allow it to advance ‘multidimensional mandates’ that allow societies to be rebuilt in order to ensure lasting peace.
The three guiding principles of UN peacekeeping are set out as ‘consent of the parties’, ‘impartiality’, and ‘non-use of force except in self-defence and defence of the mandate’. These are supposed to guide the actions of peacekeepers in their operations, which have expanded to cover matters ranging from facilitating political processes, such as elections in Cambodia, to restoring the rule of law, through actions such as implementing ceasefires and local peace agreements in Darfur. As the role and reach of peacekeeping has expanded, so has its impact on the local populations the missions are intended to safeguard, both positive and negative. On paper, the idea of UN peacekeeping makes a great deal of sense, both in the context of its conception in the immediate aftermath of WWII, when the majority of developed nations had large standing armies, and in today’s geopolitical climate. Today, the instability of many nation-states and the rise of intra-state conflict means that the need for a neutral arbitrator remains.
However, in practice the question has often been raised whether peacekeepers actually live up to their name, or if they instead achieve their UN mandated targets at the expense of the human security of the local population, particularly the most vulnerable members of society.
I think it’s safe to say that while the intentions of UN peacekeeping are noble, the wide range of cases abuses of power by peacekeepers; short sighted targets set by the UN; and complete incompatibility of battle trained soldiers with peacekeeping operations, has meant that far from improving the security of the target population, peacekeepers have actually decreased it.
The most high-profile example of this abuse in recent years, but also throughout the history of UN operations, has been sexual abuse of the local population at the hands of those charged with protecting them – the peacekeepers themselves. It goes without saying that this completely contravenes the principles supposed to guide the actions of peacekeepers. Despite this fact, there have been what amounts to tacit endorsements of these actions by the UN and a reluctance to either admit that such events are taking place or take ownership of the actions needed to confront these events and prevent them from taking place in the future.
In the twenty plus years since the UN first came under fire regarding the sexual abuse of women and girls in Cambodia, similar allegations have been levelled at peacekeepers working in the DRC, Haiti, Liberia, the Central African Republic and beyond, with frequent UN investigations failing to make any real inroads in preventing the abuse from taking place in the first place. It often appears as if the UN is content to act outraged until the incident blows over, but very rarely do reports of this violence reach the Security Council.
Perhaps the most egregious example of the lack of consequences for sexual abuse by peacekeepers comes from Haiti, where according to an internal UN report obtained by the Associated Press, 134 Sri Lankan peacekeepers exploited children in a sex ring over a period of three years. When discovered, only in 114 peacekeepers were sent home and not a single participant was arrested. In this case, not only does it seem unacceptable that no arrests were made, but there is the added fact that 20 of the peacekeepers implicated in the abuse were not sent home, instead being allowed to continue working in the community where they had committed the abuse.
The problem the UN faces is that officially it has very little jurisdiction over peacekeepers, with sanctions being left to the countries that contribute the troops. This is something that was originally considered necessary to prevent efforts to assist in post-conflict environments from being sabotaged. However, the continued existence of this privileged position exposes a central problem with the lack of accountability that peacekeepers have for their actions while in country. Many nations, such as Sri Lanka, have proved unwilling to prosecute their peacekeepers for such actions abroad, which produces a culture in the peacekeeping community that suggests these kinds of actions are simply a normal and expected feature of a peacekeeping mission.
This raises a fundamental question of how peacekeepers can be considered to have carried out their mandate of increasing peace and security, if the legacy they leave behind is one of abuse and neglect, negating any of the other far more positive impacts that their missions have. Many of the missions where particularly grievous abuse has been carried out are those that were, at the time, considered to be a success. Cambodia for example is often held up as a case of what can be achieved when peacekeeping missions succeed due to the successful implementation of elections and the resettling of refugees.
Despite these successes, it seems that the central problem with UN peacekeeping with regard to this issue is twofold. Firstly, the lack of consequences for peacekeepers who abuse their positions, which is a result of the UN having no direct punitive or regulatory power over peacekeepers, makes it extremely difficult for the UN’s zero tolerance policy for sexual abuse and exploitation to have any tangible effect on the situation. Secondly, almost complete lack of action regarding allegations of abuse means that it is near impossible for UN peacekeeping missions to be considered successful in carrying out their peace and security mandate. The legacy many peacekeeping missions leave behind is one of abused women and pregnant children, who often receive very little support and face ostracization by their communities.
I believe that peacekeeping, while conceived with good intentions, must undergo a complete overhaul in its approach to sexual abuse and the level of accountability it enforces on its participants if it is to be considered fit for purpose. This may be difficult, as it would either require the UN to have punitive power over peacekeepers or for contributing countries to be convinced to prosecute their soldiers, but it would go a long way to allowing peacekeeping to make a genuinely positive impact on communities. There have been nearly 2,000 formal allegations of sexual exploitation and assault by UN personnel since 2005, and only a fraction of the perpetrators have faced justice. The true number of incidents is likely to be far higher. Those guilty of sexual abuse should no longer be allowed to hide behind a blue helmet.
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