Abuses of Power

by Alise Brillault

One of the main factors that tipped off United Nations investigators in Haiti were the nine Haitian children who could speak Sinhalese- a language that comes from Sri Lanka[1]. Among other pieces of evidence, they eventually concluded that these nine children had been victims of a sex ring perpetrated by Sri Lankans that took place over a three-year period, in which the hungry children exchanged sex for food. The kicker was that the offenders were employed by none other than the United Nations itself- as peacekeepers.

This is not an isolated incident. Recent reports revealed that there have been approximately 2,000 cases of sexual assault committed by U.N. peacekeepers for the past 12 years in countries including Haiti, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Ivory Coast.[2] That is to say, there are U.N. peacekeepers sent to conflict zones who sexually abuse the very people whom they are supposed to be protecting. In addition to rape, exploitation can take the form of buying sex from adults or minors in either blatant forms of sex slavery or in situations in which the woman’s choice in the matter is disputable.[3] Even in cases in which the woman is “voluntarily” selling sex, it is often born out of a necessity for food and basic survival as opposed to a genuine career choice.

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However, the accused face virtual impunity. For example, in the aforementioned Haitian case, the peacekeepers could not be prosecuted by Haiti under U.N. statutes. This is because, when creating the peacekeeper position after World War II, the U.N. decided that crimes committed whilst on duty would be prosecuted by the country sending the peacekeepers instead of the one receiving them[4]. Thus, the Sri Lankan officers would be prosecuted by Sri Lanka and not Haiti. Yet what typically ends up happening, as did in this case, is that the accused members are simply sent to a different mission or are sent home, where they are often not charged with any crime. While the U.N. can conduct investigations, they themselves do not have any legal jurisdiction over the matter.

The problem lies not just in this faulty rule which was instated at a time when the fate of women and girls in conflict zones was not even a worthwhile topic to be considered.[5] While the punishment of sex crimes is obviously crucial, what is even more important is the prevention of these abuses of power in the first place and understanding why they occur.

Sex abuse committed by U.N. peacekeepers is ultimately a reflection of the patriarchal and racist society in which we live. It is also not just confined to perpetrators from the “Third World” who come from “sexist cultures.” France, or example, recently decided not to indict any of the French peacekeepers who abused children ages 9-13 in the Central African Republic in a camp at the capital’s airport from 2013-2014.[6] Furthermore, most of the cases of sexual assault in peacekeeping missions have taken place in former French colonies in Africa and in Haiti. The victims are arguably the most vulnerable and marginalized people on Earth, and peacekeepers take advantage of their more privileged positions in society as well as the power that comes with their job titles.

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Photo credit: United Nations Photo on Visual hunt / CC BY-NC-ND

It is perhaps an insurmountable task to change an entire culture, at least in the short term. However, there are some steps that can be taken to try and prevent more abuses from occurring. To start, the U.N. needs to improve its vetting process in hiring peacekeepers. As it stands, it is the country who sends the peacekeepers and not the U.N. itself that is in charge of screening for criminal records and human rights violations.[7] This is clearly not enough, as these processes can vary widely from country to country and should include such measures as psychological exams in addition to simple background checks. Training regarding consent, sexual assault, and gender equality also needs to be expanded. Additionally, the U.N. can actively recruit and hire female peacekeepers who currently make up only 4.7% of the peacekeeping taskforce.[8] Finally, the U.N. needs to change its policies to allow for perpetrators to be prosecuted in the countries in which they operate as well as to instill harsher forms of punishment within its own chambers. We simply cannot allow people who are supposed to be keeping the peace perpetuate such horrible crimes against those who are under their care.

 

References:

[1] PBS NewsHour. (2017, April 12). UN peacekeepers accused of thousands of cases of abuse, AP finds [Video File]. Retrieved 29 December 2017 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tns0l-8PC9M&t=242s.

[2] Associated Press. (2017, April 12). AP investigation: 5 things to know about UN sex abuse. Retrieved 2 January 2018, from https://apnews.com/8219e38b4bd346718cb966b5fd91ac5e/AP-investigation:-5-things-to-know-about-UN-sex-abuse.

[3] Essa, A. (2017, August 9). Do UN peacekeepers do more harm than good? Retrieved 3 January 2018, from http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2017/07/peacekeepers-harm-good-170730091925152.html.

[4] Essa, A. (2017, August 4). Why do some UN peacekeepers rape? Retrieved 29 December 2018, from http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2017/07/peacekeepers-rape-170730075455216.html.

[5] Essa, A. (2017, August 4). Why do some UN peacekeepers rape? Retrieved 29 December 2018, from http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2017/07/peacekeepers-rape-170730075455216.html.

[6] Morenne, B. (2017, January 6). No Charges in Sexual Abuse Case Involving French Peacekeepers. Retrieved 3 January 2018, from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/06/world/africa/french-peacekeepers-un-sexual-abuse-case-central-african-republic.html?_r=0.

[7] Essa, A. (2017, August 4). Is the UN sending the wrong people to keep the peace? Retrieved 3 January 2018, from http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2017/07/sending-wrong-people-peace-170730092412515.html.

[8] Essa, A. (2017, August 4). Is the UN sending the wrong people to keep the peace? Retrieved 3 January 2018, from http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2017/07/sending-wrong-people-peace-170730092412515.html.

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