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The UN’s Worst Kept Secret

Women and children’s vulnerability increases dramatically in a conflict environment. This might be due to the breadwinner (most commonly the husband or father) deceased during the conflict or joined the battle itself. However, this vulnerability is frequently associated with women and children’s subjection to sexual and physical exploitation in war and conflict zones. In many of these scenarios, women and children have been robbed of their human dignity and are left with limited to no rights. This means that, a lot of the committed sexual abuse will go unrecorded.

Recently, sexual violence has been progressively used as a means of terrorism by certain radical extremist groups (e.g. in Syria) to achieve their ideological, military and economic ends. Surprising to a lot of people, terrorists are not the only one taking advantage of a conflict environment to exploit vulnerable individuals. The very people whose job is to protect these women and children, namely the UN Peacekeepers (aka. Blue Helmets), have been abusing their position of power by raping and mistreating people in their host countries. This is a contradiction in itself, since Peacekeepers are committing crimes against people they are supposed to protect.

Moreover, it is important to highlight that these “incidents” are not isolated cases. According to the Associated Press, during 2004-2016, the UN received roughly 2000 sexual abuse and exploitation allegations against its Peacekeepers. Much to the Blue Helmets’ advantage, they are immune from any sort of prosecution by the hosting State, which is to stop hosting countries from impairing any of the Peacekeepers efforts. Essentially, if the accusations are persistent the Blue Helmet in question will, or at least should, be held accountable by his/her own government. In reality though, accused Peacekeepers rarely face repercussions. The UN’s go-to response to rape allegations are, in order of happening, to ignore, deny, cover-up and masquerade. The ones facing real consequences are the whistleblowers who are uncovering the gross abuses by the Blue Helmets.

Anders Kompass, Field Operations’ Director for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva, was suspended after leaking confidential documents to the French authorities about child abuse by French Peacekeepers and Officers in Central African Republic. He believed that the UN wasn’t putting enough effort into stopping the abuse and exploitation. In his report, Kompass noted that children were sexually exploited in exchange for food and money. Where poverty reigns, a chocolate bar or some money can be enough to lure a young child into subjugation. Other than that, the promise of safety and security by the Peacekeepers renders hope for these children, which leaves them even more vulnerable.

This wasn’t the only time the Central African Republic that made the news regarding the deployed Peacekeepers there. In 2014, three girls told the UN that they were tied up, undressed, and forced to have sex with a dog by a French military commander.  

These are just a few of the many rape and physical abuse incidents that occurred under the Peacekeeping umbrella and which actually made the news.

Even though, the UN has a zero tolerance policy when it comes to sexual and physical exploitation, efforts in addressing these ongoing problems have been very limited and ineffective. However, one significant attempt has been realised and should be noted. In 2016, the UN adopted its first ever resolution tackling the issue surrounding peacekeepers and sexual abuse. To this point, we have yet to see the success and effectiveness of this resolution.

Photo credit: Petty Officer 2nd Class Taylor Mohr