Sexual Violence in Peacekeeping: How to Deal with Disgrace

Jane Holl Lute. the UN special coordinator on improving the response to sexual exploitation (center), visits Bambari, Central African Republic. April 9, 2016 (Nektarios Markogiannis/UN Photo).

United Nations peacekeeping has survived many crises throughout its history, but none has provoked such distinctive disgrace as peacekeepers committing sexual violence against those they are meant to protect.

In March 2016 the UN Security Council took potentially game-changing action to address this shortcoming, adopting its first resolution specifically focused on accountability for these crimes. But, as I argue in a recent International Peace Institute report, Dealing with Disgrace: Addressing Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in UN Peacekeeping, implementing Resolution 2272 will require the UN system to embrace difficult, ground-breaking innovation if the resolution’s potential is to be realized.

For two decades the UN system has dealt with the scourge of sexual exploitation and abuse through incremental reforms to the policies, resourcing, administration, and management of peacekeeping. But these reforms have not stopped sexual abuse by peacekeepers. Determined rhetoric from UN leaders and member states has not translated into effective action.

Resolution 2272 is in many respects a direct response to the inadequacies of this approach. Escalating criticism of the UN’s deficiencies on prevention and accountability in the year preceding Resolution 2272’s adoption revealed the scale of peacekeeping’s legitimacy crisis. In particular, damning failures throughout the UN system to address the sexual abuse crisis in CAR were magnified by the findings of an independent review panel appointed by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the concerted campaigning of civil society organizations. The 2015 High-Level Independent Panel on United Nations Peace Operations report also drew specific attention to the need for robust action by the secretariat and member states.

Dealing with Disgrace analyses the approach of Resolution 2272, identifying nine implementation requirements and making 21 recommendations for delivering them.

Recognizing that sexual violence not only inflicts unconscionable harm on individual victims but also undermines the effectiveness of peacekeeping missions and the moral authority of the entire UN organization, Resolution 2272 makes three notable contributions to the UN’s system-wide reform efforts:

  1. It clarifies and reinforces the secretary-general’s authority to repatriate and replace an entire national contingent from a peacekeeping operation if there are sufficient indications of a pattern of sexual exploitation and abuse by members of that contingent;
  2. It targets the part of the accountability chain that the secretariat cannot: the obligations of UN member states to investigate and report on allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse, to hold perpetrators accountable, and to inform the secretary-general of the progress of investigations and actions taken; and
  3. It adds new impetus and political support to the UN’s ongoing agenda of administrative reforms, including by prioritizing the needs of survivors in UN responses and emphasizing the need for expanded vetting of personnel for past sexual abuse and for broader human rights screening.

The search for pragmatic means by which to redress the fundamentally weak accountability of peacekeeping is at the heart of Resolution 2272. Speaking in the Security Council before the resolution’s adoption, then-United States Ambassador Samantha Power clarified the logic of its key provisions: “We have long known that one of the most effective ways to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse it to send a clear message that perpetrators will be held accountable.”

In addition to its effect of prevention, however, accountability also matters for the UN’s moral authority and the trust of those it serves. In order to build and safeguard this legitimacy, Dealing with Disgrace urges close attention be paid to legitimizing the secretary-general’s discretionary authority to repatriate a peacekeeping contingent or to decline peacekeeping contributions from a member state that has not met its accountability obligations.

Decisions taken in accordance with Resolution 2272 should be subject to appropriate checks and balances, including by making operational guidance transparent and publicly justifying decisions regarding repatriation and participation. More significantly, Dealing with Disgrace recommends the appointment of an independent, impartial ombudsperson with a mandate to oversee and review UN actions on sexual exploitation and abuse.

A clear case of Resolution 2272 in practice occurred in June 2017, when the Republic of the Congo withdrew its military peacekeepers (over 600 troops) from CAR, prompted by a UN review that found allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse against its personnel indicated systemic problems in command and control. But lengthy delays in removing this contingent from the field, despite much earlier credible evidence implicating that nation’s troops in systemic abuse, cast damning light on the UN’s inability to take swift, decisive, and necessary action to protect civilians from predatory peacekeepers or deliver justice to survivors of abuse.

Implementing Resolution 2272 comprehensively will require the needs and preferences of survivors, and those vulnerable to abuse, to be front and center of UN policy and its implementation.

Dealing with Disgrace recommends mandatory specialist training for peacekeepers in trauma-sensitive methods for taking reports of abuse; ensuring mission leaders can draw on expert investigators specialized in sexual violence; establishing early cooperation with and support for local survivor groups; and new cooperative models of shared investigations between UN member states and the secretariat.

Prioritizing the needs of survivors will require peace operations to confront the likelihood that existing local support services will be woefully inadequate. Given that sexual abuse by peacekeepers is likely to occur when conflict-related sexual violence is already widespread, Dealing with Disgrace recommends that peace operations connect early with humanitarian and peacebuilding partners to support the provision of adequate medical and psychological services for survivors of abuse.

The report also identifies two significant gaps that must be addressed when implementing Resolution 2272. The first concerns strengthening accountability for civilian peacekeepers who perpetrate sexual violence, as well as peacekeepers serving in non-UN missions operating under a Security Council mandate. The second is to tackle directly the reality that sexual violence is notoriously underreported, no matter its institutional or geographical context. Ongoing improvements to the transparency of UN reporting are welcome, but getting serious about accountability requires more fundamental transparency reforms.

Dealing with Disgrace recommends that Secretary-General António Guterres substantially strengthen whistle-blower protection beyond the January 2017 policy to ensure that bodies charged with investigation and review are genuinely independent from those they are support to hold to account. And recognizing that even the most carefully designed internal reforms will have limits, the UN—aided by funding and support from its member states—should build pragmatic partnerships with local and international civil society organizations, in the field and at headquarters in New York, to promote systematic civil society monitoring of sexual exploitation and abuse in peacekeeping.

Finally, implementing Resolution 2272—and addressing flaws in the UN’s prevention and accountability systems—requires creating the conditions to enable reform. Specifically, Dealing with Disgrace urges UN member states to back their expressions of moral outrage and determination with the tangible resources required to address the scourge of sexual violence.

It is imperative that Guterres deliver on his objective of increasing the participation of women, particularly by elevating more women into senior leadership positions. And, perhaps most importantly, champions of change within and outside the UN system must continue to contribute political capital, moral leadership, collaborative partnerships, and financial resources to the task of preventing sexual violence by peacekeepers and improving accountability when it occurs.

Jeni Whalan is Senior Research Fellow in the School of Political Science and International Studies, University of Queensland, Australia.