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The Caring Profession: Peacekeeping, Blue Helmets and Sexual Abuse

It’s the sort of thing to turn many an otherwise calm stomach, but the revelations that UN peace keeping staff have been involved in sexual assault has done its fair share of upsetting.  Legislators in the United States, many sceptical of the body to begin with, are taking note.  Such revelations draw out the worst of missions supposedly altruistic in nature but demonic in execution.  In a range of instances, an international organisation went sexually rogue, its representatives assuming predatory roles.

In recent days, papers have noted how 612 women and children have alleged to have been victims of abuse, with 353 separate claims made against UN staff in peacekeeping operations.  UN official statistics similarly show that 131 cases resulted in pregnancy, many of the claimants being underage at the time.  Few UN personnel have faced jail (the current number stands at 30), with even fewer being fined, demoted or removed from office.

Such behaviour has also been cloaked by secrecy and collusion.  Bureaucrats and managers close ranks to protect this brand of ignoble humanitarianism.  According to one consultant, who reached out to The Guardian, “If you report it, your career is pretty much over, especially if you’re a consultant.  It’s like an unsaid thing.”  Things are easily left unsaid in peripheral and remote stations, where authority takes dismal precedence over diligent oversight.  Out of sight is an easy precursor to making sure something is out of mind.

The pattern is unmistakable, and repetitive in the business of rescue, the tasks of providing aid.  The United Nations is merely the most conspicuous and notable of organisations, but aid and humanitarian agencies are similarly culpable on a global scale.  Missions to rescue often morph.

Ripples started being made two decades ago when sexual offences committed in Cambodia by the blue helmets surfaced, a situation that was further aggravated by the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.  Vulnerability is magnetic, attracting exploitation and the abusing initiative of the protector.  The turn from the rescuer to the abuser is a quick one to make.

In 2005, a report by Prince Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, Jordan’s ambassador, specifically focused on the behaviour of troops involved in UN missions.  The observations shed a miserable light on a situation deemed near insoluble.

“Despite the distinguished role that United Nations peacekeeping personnel have played over the last half-century, there regrettably will always be those who violate codes of conduct and dishonour of the many who have given their lives in the cause of peace.”

Then comes the disheartening, common observation that, “Sexual exploitation and abuse by military, civilian police and civilian peacekeeping personnel is not a new phenomenon.”  Where there is war and social dysfunction, abuse, even from the protectors, will thrive.

Such realities as “prostitution and other sexual exploitation in a peacekeeping context is profoundly disturbing because the United Nations has been mandated to enter into a broken society to help it, not to breach the trust placed in it by the local population.”

Like many such reports, there are tantalising recommendations, a spirit of reform designed to reassure readers that change is possible, even imminent.  “Rules against sexual exploitation and abuse,” it urges, “must be unified for all categories of peacekeeping personnel.”  Individual and financial accountability for the consequences of such conduct is advanced, while “organizational, managerial and command measures must be instituted to address sexual exploitation and abuse.”  But as yet, these have to translate from dusty book shelf to cautious mission, largely because peacekeeping troops can only be investigated by the country of origin, not the UN proper.

Sanam Naraghi Anderlini, as a veteran of the peacebuilding business, elaborates upon the mechanics of this dilemma.  There are promises, false undertakings, and basic mendacity, followed by institutional indifference, and further cruelty.

“Where poverty is rife, the promise of a bar of soap and some food was often enough to entice a teenager, let alone promises of marriage and security.  But the ending is always the same.  Some girls become pregnant, others may be diseased, but the soldiers disappear, and the authorities typically deny, obfuscate, or promise investigations that ultimately lead nowhere.”

The symbols of such vulnerability never change.  Women and children become, for some peacekeepers, less subjects of salvation as objects of exploitation.  Children, for instance, were the victims of sexual violence occasioned by the activities of French and Georgian peacekeepers in the Central African Republic in 2014.

Two years later, the UN turned its attention to exploits in Burundi and Gabon, with its Office of Internal Oversight Services revealing 41 cases of abuse at the hands of peacekeepers.  Some 139 possible victims were interviewed, and eight paternity claims made, six by minors.

Heading a body both monster and monstrosity is a tall order, and the UN Secretary General, António Guterres has gone through the motions of moral repetition: things will change, and we intend making sure they change.

His predecessor, the ever meek and near invisible Ban Ki-moon, made similar promises, which took the form of sacking a former general of the Senegalese Army Babacar Gaye as head of the plagued mission in the Central African Republic.   Ban’s spokesman, Stéphane Dujarric, hailed the executive measure as “unprecedented”, a gesture of scant comfort.

Last year, Guterres seemingly wanted to go further, advocating a “new approach”, which seemed, in some ways, stilted.  All UN personnel would have to attest, for instance, that they understood the policy against sexual abuse and exploitation, part of which included payment for sex.  A new assistant secretary-general position at the UN headquarters, serving as victims’ advocate “to ensure that every victim receives appropriate care, follow-up attention, and information on the progress of his or her case” was proposed.

Reform, however, requires substance, bruising and cracking a few eggs.  Former chief of operations at the UN’s Emergency Coordination Centre in Pakistan, Andrew MacLeod, suggests vigorous prosecutions by police and offences of aiding and abetting by negligence.  Reforming a colossus that has become attractive for a set of disturbing reasons is bound to be frustrating, not least of all in the very philosophy of rescue missions themselves.

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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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