The UN is no stranger to controversy. In its 70-year history, it has been involved in more than its fair share of scandals across the globe, from Bosnia to Rwanda. Of all UN action, peacekeeping missions have been particularly notorious for not only failing to maintain peace, but also contributing to social problems by endangering or mistreating local populations. This troubling trend has continued even today. Recently, the UN has come under intense criticism for possibly initiating a cholera outbreak in earthquake-ridden Haiti. Experts believe that peacekeeping troops from Nepal may have carried the disease into Haiti, exacerbating the national crisis. But a far more egregious sexual abuse scandal from the Central African Republic is threatening to dent the UN’s sullied reputation even further.
The Central African Republic, long plagued by political instability is currently embroiled in a devastating civil war, sparked by ethnic tensions and the rise of an armed insurgency in December 2012. The insurrection, led by the primarily Muslim coalition Seleka, invaded the nation’s capital Bangui and launched a coup. Subsequently, Christian opposition fighters launched a series of counterattacks, resulting in unrestrained violence. In the span of a year, a Seleka-led government was formed and dissolved, replaced by an interim government under the auspices of the international community. However, the violence has continued unabated; since the start of the conflict in 2013, approximately 6,000 people have been killed and thousands more displaced.
In 2014, the Security Council authorized a peacekeeping mission to maintain order and support the transition process to the interim government. The peacekeeeping mission was especially intended to ensure that elections in December 2014 went smoothly. The mission comprises over 12,000 UN personnel, including more than 10,000 military troops from 50 different countries. The majority of these troops come from nearby African states, which naturally have a greater stake in the conflict. The mission is charged with seven priority tasks, including the protection of civilians and human rights. Put bluntly, many troops have done the exact opposite.
In the last year, many members of the peacekeeping mission have been implicated in widespread sexual abuse and exploitation. Over 42 survivors have come forward to accuse UN peacekeepers, linking nearly 1,000 troops to such transgressions. A recent exposé by the Washington Post discovered that the actual prevalence of abuse far exceeds reported numbers: Many girls were forced or coerced into sex by soldiers, often in return for money or food, and then abandoned to cope with the fallouts — and often, pregnancies — alone. These incidents are utterly at odds with UN regulations, and obviously have terrible consequences for local residents.
The UN has responded by firing or returning the alleged perpetrators to their home countries, including the entire contingent from the Democratic Republic of Congo, but most countries have refrained from prosecuting their troops. This year, France has begun to investigate allegations of sexual abuse laid against its troops and has promised decisive action if proven. But the UN has been remarkably silent about this latest installment in a long line of sexual assault scandals. In December, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon promised to “act quickly” on the claims, even calling for “on-site court-martial” to uphold justice. But an independent review of the UN response the same month called it a “gross failure” and “seriously flawed”. Despite repeated calls for a stronger institutional response to the accusations, the UN has undertaken limited visible action to prevent further abuses.
The sexual abuse scandal in the Central African Republic is not a series of isolated incidents, but is so widespread that it hints at underlying malpractice. The scale of the issue suggests that the UN troops did not act in a vacuum but rather were part of a broader culture of impunity and lax oversight. The independent review has called into question the role of senior UN officials in allowing these offenses under their watch; while they have not been directly implicated, their leadership contributed to an environment of exploitive and unpunished behavior. They failed to investigate or report accusations, allowing perpetrators latitude to continue to abuse. The head of the peacekeeping mission has already been removed from his position, but there are still lasting concerns about the future of the operation, and other similar multilateral peacekeeping missions that give a great deal of latitude to soldiers; the removal of one person does nothing to address the underlying culture creating these heinous acts.
More worrying is the fact that this is simply the culmination of a series of similar sexual abuse scandals extending back to the 1990s, when UN officers were accused of profiting from human trafficking and sex slavery in Bosnia. This prompted the UN to bar peacekeepers from soliciting sex in 2003. However, issues of sexual exploitation persist in new — and more insidious — forms, and peacekeeping missions have continued to be plagued by unregulated transactional sex and incidents of sexual abuse. A particularly infamous case was the forced prostitution and rape of minors in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2004. Another report from 2005 recounted the prevalence of “peacekeeper babies,” children from encounters between peacekeepers and local women. More recently, in an astonishing study of the ongoing UN mission in Liberia, researchers found that an estimated 58,000 women and girls received money or aid from peacekeepers in exchange for sex over the course of a decade. Similar accusations were made against peacekeepers in Haiti since 2010. In fact, almost every major UN mission in the last two decades has involved allegations of sexual abuse.
In recent months, there have been several calls for better-trained troops, reducing the likelihood they will engage in crimes. These demands have some merit: Due to overwhelming demands for peacekeepers in conflict zones, the UN has struggled to find the necessary numbers and can deploy unprepared or poorly disciplined troops. Although the UN has implemented training on sexual abuse, there have been gaps in the communication since many soldiers do not speak English or French, the language of the training sessions. These gaps will need to be filled in the coming months to prevent further damage and ameliorate the issue.
This, however, would be a half-baked solution at best. According to Salil Shetty, current secretary-general of the Amnesty International, the deeper issue is the “culture of impunity” that allows UN troops to evade serious punishment for their transgressions and abuse. Much of this culture stems from the institutional makeup of peacekeeping missions: Troops are immune from local legal proceedings and only accountable to their own nations. The UN does not have the mandate to arrest perpetrators without the cooperation of the perpetrator’s government, and many governments often decline to intervene. Unless member states agree to investigate cases and prosecute abusers, this culture will continue to pervade peacekeeping missions, and the UN will have little ability to stop it.
The UN may not be able to arrest transgressors, but even so, its response has been counterproductive and harmful. Instead of investigating allegations, they have closed ranks around the accused and brushed cases under the rug. This could stem from self-preservation and fear of public reprisal. UN missions depend on the willingness of member states to provide troops, so an international scandal could be extremely damaging. Even when it does take action, it simply sends troops back home, which is also potentially risky: If a country’s troops are simply being returned, they may be less likely to send them. However, this response has only allowed troops greater freedom to exploit and rape.
But there are signs that the UN intends to take stronger action on this issue. Last month, the Security Council approved the first-ever resolution on sexual abuse by peacekeepers. The resolution was passed by a vote of 14-0, with one abstention, and codifies stronger action against accused perpetrators. Among other reforms, it gives the UN the ability to repatriate contingents that have been linked to “widespread or systemic sexual exploitation and abuse”. The resolution is a step forward, but there is still much to be done to safeguard local populations.
The scandal in the Central African Republic has cast a much-needed spotlight on UN peacekeeping transgressions. It is time for the UN to acknowledge the extent of the problem, investigate all claims thoroughly and provide compensation to survivors dealing with trauma or “peacekeeper babies”. But most of all, they should create a clear and transparent process of accountability for peacekeepers to prevent them from acting in the first place. Without greater culpability, there will continue to be a thin line between peacekeeper and predator.