In times of crisis, the eyes of the world look to them to keep the peace; to protect those who are vulnerable; to stand with the victims of global conflict.
They are the blue helmets: United Nations peacekeepers.
The United Nations defines peacekeepers as “individuals that help countries torn by conflict create the conditions for lasting peace”. Since 1948, peacekeepers have been entrusted with the power to uphold international law, freedom, and human rights. Around 104,000 troops are currently deployed in over a dozen countries, per the United Nations Peacekeeping Unit.
But behind the blue helmets is a much darker secret: one that former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon called “as destructive as any bomb or bullet”. Over 480 allegations of sexualized violence perpetrated by UN peacekeepers were made between 2008 and 2013, per a UN internal report. One-third of these cases involved minors.
It was this horrifying war crime that brought together the United Nations’ Heads of Peacekeeping and Field Support, Jean-Pierre Lacroix and Atul Khare, with more than 60 Member States in a special meeting on sexual exploitation and abuse on July 14th. On the agenda was a discussion about the conduct and discipline of UN peacekeepers; Lacroix urged all Member States to play a part in ending sexual exploitation and abuse.
Sexual abuse perpetrated by UN peacekeepers was first documented in Bosnia and Kosovo in the early 1990s. Over the last two decades, peacekeepers have been accused of abuses in Liberia, Congo, the Central African Republic and Haiti. Victims come from different religions, ethnicities, and races. The only thing that they have in common is that war and conflict have made them vulnerable.
Sometimes, women are coerced into trading sex for basic necessities. For example, in Haiti, UN peacekeepers engaged in “transactional sex” with at least 229 women, who needed to do so to obtain food and medication, a study by the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services revealed. Other times, they are victims of sex trafficking. In Kosovo, up to 2,000 women were coerced into joining brothels run by peacekeeping missions.
But no matter the reason, peacekeepers have authority and power in the country in which they are serving. This makes women and girls even more vulnerable to abuse.
“When the most vulnerable in this world — women and children who have lost everything — when they look to the United Nations for protection, they should do so in the belief that their suffering is over, not just beginning,” said Peter Wilson, the United Kingdom’s representative to the United Nations.
There are also intergenerational implications. A study done by Cornell found that 25,000 babies in Cambodia and 7,000 babies in Liberia had been fathered by UN peacekeepers.
The sexual abuse and exploitation that continue to happen at the hands of UN Peacekeepers have been acknowledged by leaders across the globe, by the media, and by the United Nations itself in several internal reviews. Yet, little has been done to change what is happening. This is because peacekeepers are granted jurisdictional immunity in which they operate. Peacekeepers work under the cover of the international body; they enjoy immunity as part of an international civil service. If they commit a crime, they are tried in their home country, and not the one in which they served.
However, those prosecutions almost never occur. Most peacekeepers return to their home countries, without facing repercussions — even when presented with evidence of their crimes. The peacekeepers who commit sexualized violence can do so behind a “cloak of immunity”, unable to be held accountable for their actions.
But jurisdictional immunity is only part of the problem. All too often, sexual exploitation and abuse are never reported, for fear of potential repercussions. There is no way for victims to report a crime safely; to seek justice means reporting the crime to the very same peacekeeping contingent perpetrating the abuse. Even when cases are reported, corruption ensures that the voices of victims are never heard. In one example, a Moroccan contingent stationed in Bunia in 2004 threatened a U.N. officer investigating child prostitution and were reported to have “paid, or attempted to pay witnesses to change their testimony” regarding alleged sexual abuse.
In the words of Jean-Pierre Lacroix: “Sexual exploitation and abuse is not a problem limited to blue helmets, it is a system-wide problem that requires a system-wide approach.” Complicated as the solution might be, it must be found. Peacekeepers are our worlds’ protectors. When they prey on those who are the most vulnerable, we cannot simply stand by.
In the words of U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, “We will not tolerate anyone committing or condoning sexual exploitation and abuse. We will not let anyone cover up these crimes with the UN flag. Every victim deserves justice and our full support. Together, let us deliver on that promise.”
It is time to stand up for those whose rights have been violated.
It is time to speak up for those who have been silenced.
It is time to demand more of those who are meant to protect.