The UN’s Good vs. Bad Narrative Clears the Way for Sexual Violence and Impunity

Content warning: Rape, Sexual violence and abuse

by Maya Goodfellow

A Blue Helmet’s job is, quite literally, to keep the peace. The UN peacekeepers whose nickname comes from their characteristic headwear, are supposed to protect people in countries torn apart by war. However a steady drip of accusations coming out of the Central African Republic (CAR) suggests it’s Blue Helmets who are the threat to civilian safety.

Three girls in the CAR have told a harrowing tale, in which a French peacekeeper tied them up, along with their friend, stripped them and then forced them to have sex with a dog. This sickening abuse of power is not isolated. Soldiers from France, Gabon, and Burundi have allegedly committed atrocious acts of sexual abuse against women and girls in the CAR. Just last year, peacekeepers reportedly forced refugee children to perform sex acts on them, telling them it was the only way they’d receive food.

The UN mission, which goes by its French acronym MINUSCA, went into the CAR in 2014 with the aim of protecting civilians after a coup d’etat: soldiers and staff have done the opposite. The allegations against MINUSCA are piling up; in the three short months since we saw in 2016, 25 separate accounts have been lodged against peacekeepers.

A panel of independent experts looking into the events offered three words: “gross institutional failure”. They lambasted high-ranking officials for deliberately hampering investigators efforts. The situation got so bad that last August, Ban Ki-Moon sacked Babacar Gaye, his special representative in the area. It’s only after a year of allegations that the UN are acting, and even then just what this will come to isn’t clear.

PLEASE SIGN #PredatoryPeacekeepers petition: We will not stand by when UN soldiers abuse, rape and murder

A UN poster from an IDP camp in South Sudan

A UN poster from an IDP camp in Sudan

But peacekeepers abusing children and vulnerable women, callously offering them food in exchange for sexual gratification is only the latest in a long string of horrendous accounts of UN forces abusing the people they are supposed to protect. Way back in 2005, a report revealed “repeated patterns of sexual abuse and rape perpetrated by soldiers supposed to be restoring the international rule of law”. The list of evidence displays horrendous brutality: during the 1991-92 UN mission in Cambodia, largely considered a success, there were accusations of sexual harassment and abuse, and peacekeepers were said to visit brothels at such a frequent rate that the number of sex workers in Cambodia rocketed from 6,000 to over 20,000; in Liberia, UN troops sent to police the country in 2003 were found to be “regularly” having sex with girls, some as young as 12; in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Blue Helmets gave orphans food and money for sexual “favours”, and one investigator found condoms littered around the camps and guard posts; and in the early 2000s it was alleged that UN and NATO peacekeepers in Bosnia and Kosovo helped run brothels, trafficking women from Eastern Europe.  

The peacekeepers that commit crimes against vulnerable people go beyond sexual abuse. In 1993 in Somalia, two Canadian peacekeepers beat 16-year-old Shidane Arone to death, sexually abusing him in the process. Two soldiers were sentenced to short prison sentences, and a National Inquiry was launched. But, as academic Sherene Razack points out, the peacekeepers’ atrocious crimes were slotted into a pre-existing story. In an explanation that read as if it came from the times of Empire, Somalia was imagined as hot and dusty where it was impossible for the Canadian soldiers to impose order; a tumultuous environment that contrasted sharply with Canada’s white snow. Their crimes were individual instances of anger, brought out of them by their surroundings. It was a case of “dark threats and white knights”.

But the problem isn’t a couple of bad apples; it’s the whole system. Missions are imagined in a way that lets peacekeepers get away with what they want. The narrative is this: people living in these “war torn” societies don’t have the same moral values as the troops who come, often but not always from Western countries, to protect them. As the Blue Helmets head off on their expeditions, they’re applauded for bravely choosing to bring decency into a country where citizens are too barbaric to look after themselves. It’s this good vs. bad narrative that clears the way for violence.

It helps the story that all of this has been disconnected from the history that came before it. Many of the countries that send peacekeeping forces to countries in the midst of political turmoil fail to see the indelible mark left by colonialism or the current systematic exploitation of resources by global corporations that leaves huge swathes of people impoverished. These factors don’t entirely account for conflict or unrest entirely but they certainly play a role; a role that’s left ignored.

What these cases show is that this story is wrong: violence and abuse knows no nationality. In fact, the impunity UN officials receive (and that includes civilian staff who have also been accused of crimes in CAR) makes it easier for them to discard their supposed steadfast morals and commit abuse at their leisure. It’s up to the alleged criminals’ home country to investigate accusations and sentence them if proven. But that’s been proven ineffective; in the past barely any of the people accused of sexual abuse have faced the threat of criminal prosecution.

Despite their slow movement, the UN has been forced to take action on accusations of sexual abuse or rape. Last month, the Security Council passed their first ever a resolution to tackle sexual abuse by peacekeepers. But there are questions still to answer: why did it take so long, and how effective will it be? Three people are on trial in the DRC for crimes in the CAR, but what will become of the others accused of equally horrendous crimes? This matters: more than 100,000 troops and police are currently active in 16 UN peacekeeping operations across the world. Not everyone under their stewardship is guaranteed safety.

Over the past twenty years UN troops and personnel – the people who are supposed to symbolise safety – have been accused of widespread sexual abuse and violence against innocent civilians.  The steady flow of allegations show the UN need to dismantle the idea that peacekeepers can’t be criminals and start taking decisive action.

PLEASE SIGN #PredatoryPeacekeepers petition: We will not stand by when UN soldiers abuse, rape and murder

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Maya Goodfellow is a journalist and political commentator. She primarily writes about British politics and has worked as a researcher for a think tank. She also writes about international affairs, with a particular focus on conflict studies. Find her on Twitter: @Mayagoodfellow

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