Humanitarian Issues

Sexual Exploitation and Abuse by UN Peacekeepers: Zero Tolerance is a Political and Medical Responsibility

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In recent years, cases of alleged sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) of vulnerable individuals by UN peacekeepers and police have been surfacing with alarming regularity. The extent of the crisis was revealed by Human Rights Watch, which documented that between December 2013 and June 2014 children residing near the M’Poko Internationally Displaced Person Camps in Bagui, Central African Republic (CAR), reported that they had been abused or had witnessed other children being abused by French Sangaris Forces, who used food or money as incentives. After demands that the UN investigate these allegations, an Independent Review on Sexual Exploitation and Abuse by International Peacekeeping Forces in the Central African Republic was established. Its report, published in December 2015, found that:

Some of the children described witnessing the rape of other child victims (who were not interviewed by the HRO [Human Rights Officer]); others indicated that it was known that they could approach certain Sangaris soldiers for food, but would be compelled to submit to sexual abuse in exchange. In several cases soldiers reportedly acknowledged or coordinated with each other, for example by bringing a child onto the base, past guards, where civilians were not authorized to be, or by calling out to children and instructing them to approach.

In 2016, new allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation by UN peacekeeping troops have emerged from the Democratic Republic of Congo and, once again, from the CAR. In an attempt to bring the situation under control, the UN has recommended the implementation of various measures.

First, when the UN receives allegations of SEA they are obliged under their policy framework to investigate, report and take action. In March 2016, the Security Council adopted Resolution 2272, designed to address present loopholes in how the Secretary-General may respond to, and report on, SEA by peacekeepers serving under the UN. The resolution states that troops whose soldiers (or police officers) are accused of SEA must be sent home ( It remains up to the Troop Contributing Country to investigate these abuses, but the Secretary-General is now permitted to report on the process of these investigations and list the Troop Contributing Country of the accused peacekeepers/police officers.

Second, and especially since the investigation into the UN’s failure to respond to the SEA crimes by peacekeepers in the CAR, the UN system has promoted the acceleration of pre-deployment training, introduced technical programs to facilitate the vetting of all personnel for prior misconduct prior to deployment, and enhanced timely investigation procedures and powers.

In addition, UN Missions are to be staffed with <href=”#.V474MZN96gR”>Response Teams whose responsibility is to receive reports and investigate allegations on the ground to ensure that victims are able to report abuse, with a suitable timeframe (10 days) for effective response and investigation.

Commanding officers can also now be deported for failure to report allegations against those under their command.

Finally, the UN has recognised that, along with appropriate medical and psychological assistance, victims require a safe space to report allegations. As UN Under-Secretary General for Field Support, Atul Khare, noted this year: “‘safe spaces’ for victims to lodge complaints against peacekeepers…[need] to exist in more locations, closer to the communities affected, and with the support of non-governmental organizations.”

Despite these measures, allegations of unaddressed SEA persist and, ultimately, there are concerns that this represents a systemic failure to enforce the zero tolerance policy on sexual relations for all who wear the blue helmet or blue beret. Much discussion has revolved around the zero tolerance policy and its relationship to sexual abuse and exploitation – the confusion over reporting and investigation, the exploitative environment of peacekeeping in the local population, and the assumptions about agency in sexual relationships. These issues can lead to the type of abuses that Anders Kompass, a UN whistle-blower who exposed and reported cases of abuses in the Central African Republic (CAR), witnessed. But what led to his resignation in June were not the cases of SEA themselves, but the failure of the UN system to adopt necessary actions in response.

Kompass was suspended and charged with misconduct for leaking confidential documents recounting episodes of SEA in Africa. He told IRIN News:

The complete impunity for those who have been found to have, in various degrees, abused their authority, together with the unwillingness of the hierarchy to express any regrets for the way they acted towards me sadly confirms that lack of accountability is entrenched in the United Nations.

In our ongoing study of medical deployments in peacekeeping operations, we see evidence of slippage between the zero tolerance policy and sexual exploitation and abuse. The problem is not just the relationship between the UN and Troop Contributing Countries, but also the standards and norms on zero tolerance being promoted across all areas of field deployment in peacekeeping missions.

For example, in 2015 the zero-tolerance policy on sexual relations between all UN personnel and local populations was laid out in DPKP material and reiterated again this year in the recent UN Resolution 2272. However, the updated 2015 UN Medical Support Manual for Peacekeepers more ambiguously states that “abstinence in the field is encouraged” (p.69). Then later in the manual on risk factors associated with HIV/AIDs infection, we confront the following text.

The following factors contribute to the particular vulnerability of deployed peacekeepers to STIs and HIV/AIDS, which arises largely from contact with infected sex workers.

1. Lengthy periods away from home and separation from regular sex partners.

2. Influence of alcohol and peers.

3. Fewer inhibitions and restrictions in the new country.

4. Money to spend, with fewer opportunities to spend during operational deployment.

5. Risk-taking ethos and behaviour in the military, which is part of the make-up of any soldier.

6. Easy access to sex workers near campsites and frequented off-duty areas.

7. In some situations, higher tendency towards drug abuse and lack of access to sterile hypodermic needles.

8. Higher chance of exposure to infected blood in the operational environment, either from fellow peacekeepers or the local population, particularly for medical personnel.

STIs and HIV infections are largely preventable through proper health education and training, as well as through the issuance of personal protection (condoms) to individual peacekeepers. An effective AIDS prevention programme will limit further spread of the disease among peacekeepers and the local population.

There are three ways in which the above language that directly contradict the UN system wide policy on preventing SEA.

First, the presumption that the local environment is the cause of peacekeeper practices that lead to the risk of STIs is completely divorced from the UN policy on zero tolerance. Numbered points 1-7 above make presumptions about the “masculinised” and risk-taking behaviours of soldiers that deny their personal responsibility, the responsibility of commanders, and the agency of local populations.

Second, there is no discussion in the Medical Support Manual about the UN zero tolerance policy and the responsibility of medical units to ensure that their role in distributing advice and prophylactic devices (i.e. condoms) reinforces that message.

Third, there is a deeply problematic underlying presumption in this section of the manual that peacekeepers are the ‘vulnerable’ population when it comes to sexual engagements in the field. As the tragedy in South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo and the CAR demonstrate, this is clearly untrue. The implication in this manual of infected sex workers being the ‘vectors’ for STIs and that the ‘uninhibited’ sexual practices in the ‘new country’ leads soldiers having ‘easy access’ to prostitutes, directly contradicts the manual’s earlier statement that military personnel have higher prevalence rates (of STIs) than the ‘normal’ population (p.142). It also short shrifts the responsibility of peacekeepers and medical practitioners in the field to uphold UN standards and policies that deal with sexual relations and sexual exploitation.

In addition, many women and children in the countries in which peacekeepers are serving are uninformed on the medical and psychological support that should be available to them if they have been abused and raped. So they still feel helpless and marginalised.

Ultimately, much more needs to be done to stop the cases of SEA and reinstate the faith of civilians in the UN. Although the latter has been making efforts to solve this difficult issue, evidence suggests that cases of SEA will continue to arise. (Note: The number of cases increasing, from 52 in 2014 to 59 in 2015.)

The reporting system set up under Resolution 2272 is a good step towards addressing the issue, but as Kompass noted, it is vital that all parts of the UN system take this problem seriously – the ‘political’ UN bodies and the ‘technical’ ones, and not least those which provide medical support in missions.

About the Authors

Dr Sara E. Davies is an Associate Professor and ARC Future Fellow, Centre for Governance and Public Policy at Griffith University. She is also a program leader for global health governance at the Centre for Governance and Public Policy, an adjunct associate professor at Monash University, and an adjunct associate professor at the Australian Centre for Health Law Research at Queensland University.

Johanna Greco is from the University of Sheffield.

Dr Simon Rushton is a lecturer in politics at the University of Sheffield and his research interests center on the global politics of health. His work focuses in particular on international responses to HIV/AIDS and other diseases, the links between health and security, the changing architecture of global health governance, and issues surrounding health, conflict and post-conflict reconstruction.

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