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POLITICS: U.N. Asks for More Women Peacekeepers

Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, Mar 16 2007 (IPS) - When the United Nations commemorated International Women’s Day last week, its Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) aired a longstanding complaint: a woeful shortage of women military personnel in U.N. missions overseas.

Of the 71,673 military personnel in peacekeeping operations, only 1,034 were women, and out of the 8,482 U.N. police personnel, only 454 were women, according to the latest figures released here.

The DPKO’s “Year in Review” cites the famous U.S. Marine Corps recruiting slogan: “We are looking for a few good men.” But gives it a gender perspective: “We are looking for a few good women”- or rather “a whole lot of them.”

The DPKO says that only about one percent of military personnel are women and only about four percent are in police units.

“Member states were asked to double the number of female uniformed peacekeepers every year for the next few years, while for the long-term DPKO’s military division has set the goal of reaching 10 percent female representation (in U.N. peacekeeping operations).”

On the civilian side, however, there has been a steady increase in women recruits over the last 10 years, reaching 30 percent of the staff. The duties assigned to civilian staff include political and civil affairs, public information, human rights and electoral issues.

With more female military observers, the DPKO argues, local women may experience fewer difficulties in reporting sexual violence and abuse.

The response from member states, however, has been poor, with an overwhelming majority of men being sent as peacekeepers, year in and year out.

Of the 192 member states, Nigeria took the lead in providing about 49 women police officers by the end of last year, followed by India and Bangladesh with 34 each, and the United States with 24.

India has sent its all-female police contingent to the U.N. Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), while Nigeria has pledged a similar police contingent to support the African Union mission in Darfur, Sudan later this year.

As more and more peacekeepers are accused of sexual abuse, there is a prevailing view that such crimes could be reduced or eliminated if there is an increase in women military and police personnel.

Jane Holl Lute, assistant secretary-general for mission support in DPKO, told reporters last month that the reputation of U.N. peacekeeping was one of its most powerful assets, “which was why the organisation had responded so strongly to the issue of sexual exploitation and abuse by its peacekeepers, and addressed it structurally and systematically.”

She said that, between January 2004 and November 2006, the United Nations had completed investigations against 319 peacekeeping personnel, resulting in dismissals of 18 civilians and the repatriation of 17 police and 144 military personnel.

But the degree of punishment, she pointed out, was within the purview of the member state concerned, not with the United Nations.

The action that the United Nations could take was relatively limited, as it depended on the sovereign authority of the member states consistent with the country’s own military codes of justice and national laws.

However, member states have been supportive of U.N. efforts to implement the comprehensive programme against sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeepers, she added.

Among Bangladeshi peacekeepers who were repatriated on charges of sexual abuse, one had been dismissed from service, two had been lowered in rank, and two other officers had been severely reprimanded.

Jessica Neuwirth of the New York-based Equality Now says the rising number of reported incidents of rape and sexual abuse by U.N. peacekeepers, and the growing public demand for accountability, has highlighted a gap in the jurisdiction of the United Nations to ensure that peacekeepers conduct themselves in accordance with U.N. rules and respect for human rights.

“What happens to U.N. peacekeepers accused of misconduct, if anything, is that they are simply repatriated to their home countries, where often they are not tried for the crimes of which they have been accused,” she told IPS.

“Even if they were to be tried, it might be difficult to produce evidence and witnesses, who are often very far away from the home country of the peacekeeper,” Neuwirth added.

She said the United Nations needs to address this problem, at least by requiring more effectively that peacekeeper-contributing countries prosecute those accused of committing crimes of sexual violence, and other crimes.

Ideally, she said, those who serve among the ranks of U.N. peacekeepers should submit to some type of U.N. jurisdiction that would enable the United Nations to take disciplinary action and perhaps work with national jurisdictions to facilitate criminal prosecution.

“In the interim, one immediate step that could be taken by the United Nations is to ensure that peacekeepers accused of misconduct are not sent back to other U.N. missions, and to encourage contributing countries to include more women among the troops they send,” Neuwirth said.

In many countries, she added, women suffer state-sanctioned discrimination in the military even at the formal level where they are excluded from service.

The United Nations should play a more active role in urging governments to remove these barriers, in accordance with the commitments made by governments in the Commission on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action, and many other international human rights instruments that prohibit discrimination against women.

More women in peacekeeping efforts would benefit the United Nations in many ways, and would no doubt result in less incidence of and more accountability for sexual violence, Neuwirth said.

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