Children raped. Girls forced to trade sex for food. Women assaulted at gunpoint. Is this the behavior one would expect from the United Nations peacekeeping missions?
Since the 1990s, the U.N. peacekeeping missions have been plagued with sexual misconduct scandals. According to The Washington Post, it first started in Cambodia with U.N. peacekeepers sexually abusing young girls. At that time, the U.N. dismissed the claims with a careless attitude--as if it were inevitable to occur. Meanwhile, the abuses continued and a culture of silence developed.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, 30 percent of the people who visited brothels were U.N. or NATO staff. In fact, the U.N. police operated brothels there and trafficked people.(1)
In Liberia, U.N. peacekeepers had sex with young girls, some as young as 12 years old. A trade would consist of giving the girl $10 or some food. Many of the staff visited the brothels in their U.N. vehicles.
In the Congo, the alleged cases of sexual exploitation include child porn rings, sex shows and rape of babies.(2)
In Timor, at least 20 babies fathered by peacekeepers have been abandoned. There have also been allegations of child sex abuse, bestiality and coercion into prostitution.(3)
In Haiti, peacekeepers offer young teens a few dollars and some food in exchange for sex.(4) Half of the population lives on a dollar a day. The situation is ripe for exploitation.
These peacekeepers are sent to areas of conflict, or post-conflict, which can present stress and difficulties to the peacekeepers. However, these are also areas where the local population is particularly vulnerable. Many have lost their homes and their land. Many have been physically, sexually or psychologically abused already. That peacekeepers would exploit the very people they are meant to help is unacceptable.
The U.N.'s Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who will step down in January, promised more disciplinary action. However, little change has been seen since the start of the scandal. We can hope that in-coming Ban Ki-moon will provide the much-needed reform he's been promising.
It will be challenging. Just between February 2003 and October 2005 alone, there were 221 cases of sexual misconduct. Impunity was often the outcome. The U.N. peacekeepers are immune from local laws. Some countries don't even have sexual assault laws. In the end, the alleged suspect is often merely repatriated home.
"Most countries have little interest in seeing their peacekeepers brought to trial for crimes committed while 'doing good deeds' elsewhere in the world," according to Refugees International. It doesn't seem to matter that they are U.N. peacekeepers committing human rights violations.
According to BBC News, the U.N. said it was only aware of two cases where sex offenders were sent to jail when the peacekeepers were repatriated, although there could be others.(5)
These peacekeepers number 80,000 strong and are stationed in 17 missions in the world. Their units come from all over and represent diverse cultures. The peacekeepers brought their cultural beliefs with them, and it's true that may play a role. However, they also created a culture, one that many activists are aware of, a culture of silence. The threat of punishment was so low it was disregarded. Discipline within the units was lacking, and, in fact, the men's behavior was accepted as being natural. The peacekeepers could, therefore, exploit their victims without being held accountable for their actions to their commanders, local laws, or their country's laws. As more peacekeepers took advantage of this situation, the behaviors were further enforced. Now, it's believed that these types of abuses are found in every U.N. peacekeeping mission in the world. The cases have been documented by the U.N., human rights groups and journalists.
When any group of individuals permit this type of behavior because it is "inevitable' that a man behave like this or that a woman has to endure it, or because it's safer and more acceptable to remain silent, isn't it, in effect, reflecting society's values and attitudes?
It's not just their position of power that was a factor in the abuse, although that plays a role, too. Only one group, however, was exploited.
All countries have gender-based violence where your sex, like your race, serves as a risk factor for violence. Some countries have laws against it, some don't. Worldwide, in many cases of violence, impunity is the result. As just one example, take rape in the United States. The Justice Department calls it the most underreported crime in the nation. Only four in ten cases are reported. It occurs, like domestic violence, in a culture of silence.
The U.N. scandal is simply mimicking an overall problem of violence and impunity. When societies stop contributing to these values and attitudes, we will see an end to these kinds of exploitative human rights abuses.
The U.N., in the meantime, must take action to ensure the peacekeepers are held accountable for their behavior and to restore the credibility of their peacekeeping missions overseas. If you would like to ensure that this happens, please write letters to editors in newspapers, write articles or write to the U.N. in New York. Help break the culture of silence.