Protection from the protectors

Is enough being done to tackle peacekeeper sexual abuse?

Melanie O'Brien

PHOTO: AP / Dieu Nalio Chery

Government and governance, Law | Asia, The World

20 March 2017

The UN Secretary-General is set to shake things up on peacekeeper sexual exploitation and abuse, but gaps remain, Melanie O’Brien writes.

The new Secretary-General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, has recently released the 2017 report on Special measures for protection from sexual exploitation and abuse. This report is annual, however, this year’s report contains ‘a new approach’, and is the biggest shake-up of UN policy on sexual exploitation prevention in years.

Sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeepers is a huge problem, and not just because it is conduct that goes against the very mandate of peacekeepers to protect civilians and uphold human rights.

The new report shows a dramatic spike in number of victims and allegations reported by the UN in the past year (up to 145 allegations with 311 victims). However, these figures don’t even scratch the surface of the reality of sexual exploitation. The most common crimes reported are child rape and sexual exploitation; the majority of victims are women and girls.

Studies have shown that even in missions with robust anti-sexual exploitation measures in place, sexual exploitation and abuse are rife. Women and girls, out of desperation, trade sex for basic commodities such as food and medicine or for education costs.

More on this: A continent of hope | António Guterres

Condoms are often not used in sexual exchanges, due to lack of healthcare education of local girls and women, and/or a lack of willingness to ask a peacekeeper, as a powerful, armed man, to wear a condom. This is especially problematic as many peacekeeping missions take place in regions with high HIV/AIDS levels, with this year’s report showing a number of allegations were made against peacekeepers stationed in countries including the Democratic Republic of Congo and Congo.

The report notes that risk of sexual exploitation and abuse is highest where “local populations are at their most vulnerable – where people are displaced, desperate and under extreme duress, and where local public safety and legal systems are ineffective or wholly absent”. These factors are present in most locations where peacekeepers are deployed.

To tackle the problem, the UN is instigating a new four-pronged approach to preventing and responding to sexual exploitation and abuse: “putting victims first; ending impunity; engaging civil society and external partners; and improving strategic communications for education and transparency.”

Guterres has set out several actions that he will take. These seek to ensure more comprehensive system-wide reporting and focus on the victims. Actions will include the appointment of a senior human rights expert to the office of the Secretary-General as a system-wide victims’ rights advocate, and having mission heads conduct risk assessments.

The report also makes several requests of member states to consider certain actions, which is by no means a guarantee these will happen. These include procedures to withhold reimbursement payments when investigations of allegations are not undertaken, reported on and concluded “in a timely manner”, with those payments instead donated to the Victims’ Trust Fund.

It is not clear, however, whether this means all reimbursement payments to that member state, or only the payments to the person subject to allegations. Withholding all reimbursement payments would be a powerful action for the UN to take and an extraordinary motivator for states to act on allegations, although it is improbable states would agree to this.

However, one of the biggest problems of peacekeeper sexual exploitation and abuse is that it occurs with impunity. Studies have shown that certainty of punishment works as the most effective deterrent of a criminal justice system. Currently, there is no certainty of punishment for peacekeepers who commit sexual exploitation and abuse.

More on this: The evolution of the Responsibility to Protect

The UN is not a country and therefore cannot prosecute and punish perpetrators of crimes. Only the sending states can undertake a criminal investigation and prosecution of their peacekeeping personnel.

But for the most part, sending states cannot do this in practice. Many countries do not have comprehensive laws outlawing sexual offences, and particularly not for sexual exploitation. In addition, laws traditionally only apply within a country’s territory. This means that to prosecute its own peacekeepers, a state must specifically allow for its laws to apply outside of its territory; what is termed ‘extraterritorial jurisdiction’.

There is little to be found in the 2017 report addressing this shortfall. At most, Guterres will “renew the call upon Member States to extend extraterritorial jurisdictions over crimes” committed by their peacekeepers. He has also suggested the creation of a voluntary protocol between member states and the UN which would include an agreement for member states to exercise or establish extraterritorial jurisdiction.

The report notes that South Africa will table a defence bill sometime in 2017 to create a specific offence for sexual exploitation, and that Vanuatu will ‘consider’ doing the same.

Yet nowhere in the report is there a discussion of working with member states to ensure they have the ability in law to prosecute and punish sexual exploitation; nor is there a program created to support, instruct and oversee states on this issue.

Guterres’ ‘new approach’ contains many positive steps towards prevention of sexual exploitation, but gaps remain. His proposal to hold a meeting on the issue alongside the UN General Assembly’s session this year, will hopefully lead towards a more comprehensive solution from both the UN and member states.

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