The Gendered Political Economy of Militarized Peacekeeping

Peacekeepers of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) patrolling the streets to restore law and order, following protests against escalating food prices on April 10, 2008. (UN Photo/Logan Abassi)

A significant body of scholarship over many years, and especially since the passage of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on October 31, 2000, has raised the alarm about the harmful gendered impacts of United Nations (UN) peacekeeping missions. This scholarship points to a long list of examples of missions characterized by allegations of sexual misconduct: UN operations in Cambodia, Somalia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Cote d’Ivoire, Haiti, Sudan, Guinea, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and Burundi. Among many other topics, this scholarship offers analyses of the factors associated with peacekeeper sexual abuse; critiques the notion that the presence of women peacekeepers should be posited as an antidote to the predatory practices of their male colleagues; argues that survival sex should be considered a form of violence against women under international human rights law; and it debates the extent to which peacekeeping operations mimic colonial practices.

An additional research dimension is the political economy of peacekeeping and its pernicious gendered impacts. Drawing on work by Kathleen M. Jennings in Liberia and the DRC; Øystein H. Rolandsen in South Sudan; and Luissa Vahedi, Susan Bartels, and Sabine Lee in Haiti, this article looks at the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) as an example. Peacekeeping troops there were implicated in wide-scale sexual abuse and exploitation, including of children, and contributed to a cholera outbreak in 2010. Nearly two decades after the United Nations established what would end up being a 13-year, multi-billion dollar peacekeeping mission, Haiti’s continued political instability, its limited capacity to respond to natural disasters, and the exodus of its people point to a need for peacebuilding to be reconceptualized through a feminist political economy framework.

Militarized Peacekeeping

Following the United States-supported ouster of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the UN Security Council (UNSC) established MINUSTAH in 2004, with the stated aim of restoring peace and democracy. Between 2004 and its closure in 2017, MINUSTAH cost $7 billion in UN member state funds.

There is a long history of militarized UN interventions of the sort seen in Haiti. The UNSC has mandated troops to countries more than 71 times since 1948. There are currently twelve peacekeeping missions with more than 90,000 uniformed personnel deployed in countries on the UNSC agenda. These operations are costly to maintain, and funding is allocated in problematic ways.  For the 2020-2021 fiscal year alone, $6.58 billion was set aside for peacekeeping, and recent UN General Assembly reports indicate that, in 2010, sixty percent of the total peacekeeping budget was used toward peacekeeper salaries.  In fact, studies show only a tiny percentage of the nearly $13 billion in foreign aid spent by the UN, the United States (US), and others ever made it to Haitian organizations: only 1 percent of the $3 billion in US foreign aid, according to a report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

The Problem with Militarized Peacekeeping

Peacekeeping is a highly gendered activity, as the vast majority of those in uniform are men. While peacekeeping missions might be deployed as part of the effort to demilitarize non-state armed groups and professionalize standing armies by bringing in new soldiers with new uniforms and armaments, peacekeeping missions can in fact perpetuate the militarization of society and propagate problematic ideas about men’s roles and about masculinities. We can think of masculinities as a shorthand for talking about the various social expectations and practices of “manhood” that are reinforced every day by people of all genders as well as by the law, the economy, religion, education, and the media. The roles, behaviors, and attributes that are considered appropriate for men are historically produced and change over time, although they are usually defined as the opposite of those associated with women, and all too often devalue women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersexed (LGBTQI) communities, creating a sense of entitlement to women’s labor, care, and bodies.

In conflict and post-conflict settings, militarized masculinities usually prevail. Militarized masculinities are the instrumentalization of contemporary male socialization to facilitate men’s endorsement of and participation in war. Since the personnel involved in peacekeeping have been trained to adopt militarized masculinities, these values then persist among these same forces despite their deployment as “peacekeepers.” Militarized masculinities value force, control, dominance, intimidation, weapons, and the capacity to use violence. They offer military might as protection. Militarized masculinities are not radically different from conventional dominant masculinities, but they amplify the propensity for exploitation, abuse, and violence already embedded in contemporary male socialization.

As Senem Kaptan has written in internal WILPF documents on the topic “it’s worth noting that peacekeeping operations also often mimic and reproduce colonial processes and structures. Like colonial powers, peacekeeping operations involve occupation—albeit multilaterally sanctioned—by outside troops; exploitation of land, resources, and local populations; and prolonged foreign presence and intervention with structures akin to foreign military bases, producing a peacekeeping-industrial complex often with detrimental gendered effects on the local population.”

The economic and social problems that peacekeeping missions can generate in the countries of deployment are well documented and pervasive. For example, MINUSTAH personnel earned roughly $4,000 per month and spent about $3,000 locally per month, while the average annual per capita income of a Haitian in 2006 was $450. As has been documented in other peace operations, spending by MINUSTAH personnel caused inflation in prices in areas where international peacekeepers were likely to frequent. Goods and services such as imported food, dining and entertainment, and housing are typically affected most dramatically.

As has been documented here, here, here, and here (among others), the presence of militarized contingents made up of mostly-male international peacekeepers has predictably harmful effects. Economic distortion results from a range of activities, from the procurement undertaken by the UN itself to the individual procurement by personnel. How money, usually in the form of daily subsistence allowances given to humanitarian actors or salaries paid to military and police personnel serving as peacekeepers, is spent by international actors can also be seriously problematic and is highly gendered. The demands—for access to alcohol, to entertainment, and inevitably to women for sexual services—which accompany militarized masculinities distort the local economy in ways that create or encourage illegality, from black markets to sex trafficking and the creation of a market for transactional and survival sex.

Women have been particularly affected by the lack of opportunities for economic and political participation in the post-conflict context, which has created a climate conducive to sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) by foreign troops. The lack of effective regulation, accountability, and redress by the United Nations and troop-contributing countries has the effect of acquiescing in, if not condoning, this abuse. The legal regimes that do exist are complicated and extraordinarily difficult to navigate (the UN being rules-based not law-based), and in general terms, most actors, save for the victims, prefer to avoid accountability and negative reputational consequences. In other words, impunity is the norm. Other abuses are rarely even reported, ranging from the re-selling of weapons confiscated during disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration programs to simple black marketing of goods. Opportunities to take advantage of a position of relative privilege in a country in crisis are legion.

Reforming peacekeeping so that it fosters sustainable peace must, therefore, include an interrogation of militarized masculinities, understanding how they work within and among the peacekeepers themselves, how they interface with the domicile population, and their harmful gendered consequences.

Moving Forward

To address the harmful gendered dynamics of peace operations in the economic, social, and political spheres of life in post-conflict communities, approaches to building peace must be reconceptualized in the following ways.

First, policymakers should be able to plan and evaluate peace operations from a multidimensional gendered perspective—including through a feminist political economy framework—with the aim to devise peacebuilding policies and practices that are neither militarized nor colonial, and do not reinforce ideas about “manhood” that glorify the use of violence.

Second, if multilateral approaches to building peace are to succeed in mitigating negative gendered impacts, there is also a need to entirely reimagine the relationship that peacekeeping missions have—at the structural and individual level—with the local populations they are mandated to protect. Instead of militarized security, peacemaking and peacebuilding efforts should support human security as it is defined by the local community. As Carol Cohn and Claire Duncanson wrote, post-war reconstruction must prioritize a vision of human security that “emphasizes care and social reproduction, human rights, and our interdependence with nature.”

Third, at every level, peacekeeping should look to counter militarized masculinities and instead mobilize men to support gender equality and advance feminist peace, which is the work we do at the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). In Colombia, for instance, WILPF members are partnering with Collective Action of Conscientious Objectors to challenge military conscription and build a culture of peace. In Afghanistan, WILPF is working with progressive Muslim theologians to challenge restrictive and militaristic norms being imposed by the Taliban. In Lebanon, WILPF and MenEngage are using theatre to explore men’s reactions to the Thawra Onsa, Lebanon’s feminist uprising, and encourage greater support among men for feminist peace.

Finally, peacekeeping efforts must support local women’s leadership and effective participation and address the social, political, and economic conditions that create and sustain conflict. As Madeleine Rees and Christine Chinkin wrote: “If peace is the end game, which it must be, then the inclusion of those who have been excluded in creating and prosecuting the conflict and who want its end is fundamental. This is the alternative to the binary narrative of competing masculinities that sustains violence.”

This article is part of a series reflecting on the current state of the Women, Peace, and Security agenda.

Dean Peacock is Director of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom’s initiative to confront militarized masculinities. This paper draws significantly on internal WILPF documents developed by Madeleine Rees, Senem Kaptan, Louise Arimatsu, Christine Chinkin, Di Otto, Cynthia Enloe, Xuchen Zhang, Nela Porobić Isaković, Dean Peacock, and Jamie Pratt.