Modern day soldiers in Middle East silhouette against sunset sky with vehicles in background

Since 2002, the United Nations (UN) has consistently reaffirmed a ‘zero tolerance’ for sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA). Such an affirmation was made in tandem with landmark Security Resolution 1325, highlighting the disproportionate impact of women and children in armed conflict as well as a commitment to the prevention of sexual violence and gender-based discrimination. 

However, the past three decades of Peacekeeping Operations (PKO) have been plagued by allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse committed by peacekeepers against women and children. An investigation by the Associated Press found nearly 2,000 allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation by peacekeepers in the past 12 years. The persistence of allegations has cast a dark cloud over the reputation of the UN, as the peacekeepers  deployed to foreign countries in order to ‘protect’ humanitarian law, are repeatedly violating the very basis of it. 

The prominence of SEA has been showcased by the emergence of accusations of misconduct against peacekeeping personnel since 1992, beginning with the UN mission Mozambique (ONUMOZ) and later with UN mission in Cambodia (UNTAC). Similar allegations have been made in missions in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Burundi, Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia and Eritrea, Haiti, Kosovo, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, and Timor Leste. The continued prominence of SEA allegations throughout 21st century reveals that the problem of SEA in UN peacekeeping runs deep.

Recently, an expert report deemed SEA as “the most significant risk to UN peacekeeping missions, above and beyond other key risks including protection of civilians.” The prominence of SEA reveals the violation of human rights, the undermining of human security, the delegitimizing of the mission, and the perpetuation of unequal gendered dynamics of post-conflict societies.

Acts of SEA are human rights violations, as both abuse and exploitation violate the very concepts of dignity and rights of individuals enshrined by Article 1 of the Universal Declarations of Human Rights. Despite the international reputation of UN peacekeepers as international protectors and enforcers of human rights, allegations of SEA by the hands of personnel contradicts the very normative grounding which the organization stands on and claims to champion.

Initial responses to SEA allegations by UN personnel is best chatacterized by the statement made by Special Representative to the Secretary-General (SRSG) Yasushi Akashi, who said “boys will be boys”. Such a statement is validated by decades of male domination in UN peacekeeping military cultures unconducive to the central tenets of Security Resolution 1325, which makes a clear commitment to amplifying female voices in the context of peace and security. Furthermore, the discrepancy between UN peacekeeping rhetorical statements committing to reductions of SEA have fallen short of addressing technical and conceptual barriers to gender equality on the ground.

Moving forward, the UN must take decisive action when addressing SEA within its peacekeeping missions. This will require strengthened reporting mechanisms, allowing prevention policy to better align with the empirical realities on the ground of each mission. It is also essential for the realignment of partnerships between UN and troop-contributing countries in regards to commitments of SEA reform and enforcement in terms of standardized training models.

With the upcoming 20th anniversary of the UN Security Council resolution 1325, the UN must continue to push moral, political, and economic incentives for the increased involvement of women in peacekeeping operations and continue to challenge hyper-masculine military culture which has proved conducive to SEA. Ultimately, larger representation of women in peacekeeping missions could potentially serve as the unifier of rhetoric and reality in which the UN strives for.

Lilly Callender

Lilly graduated from UBC with an International Relations and Economics degree. She grew up in rural Ontario on the territory of Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe peoples. She is the daughter of a farmer and...

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