Gender, Global, Global Geopolitics, Headlines, Human Rights

RIGHTS: U.N. Lacks Muscle to Fight Sex Abuse in Peacekeeping

Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, Jul 2 2008 (IPS) - When the United Nations Security Council adopted a key resolution last month critical of violence against women, the condemnation was also directed at the increasing number of peacekeepers, mostly soldiers, expelled from U.N. missions on charges of rape or sexual abuse.

Since the United Nations has no political or legal authority to penalise these offenders, complains one U.N. official, most of them escape punishment for their criminal activities because national governments have either refused or have been slow in meting out justice within their own court systems.

The only thing the Secretariat could do is to deport them home, as was the case with the 108 Sri Lankan peacekeepers serving with the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Haiti (Minustah), who were accused of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse of minors.

One of the expelled peacekeepers was quoted as saying, rather defiantly: “What do you expect us to do when the U.N. is providing us with free condoms?”

According to the U.N. Secretariat, there has been sexual abuse by peacekeepers in virtually all of the U.N. missions overseas, including the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Cote d’Ivoire, Liberia and Haiti.

“The United Nations is not helpless when it comes to holding peacekeepers accountable for sexual violence,” says Jessica Neuwirth, president of Equality Now, an international human rights organisation based in New York.

In addition to repatriating peacekeepers, she said, the United Nations can also work much more actively to ensure that governments hold peacekeepers criminally accountable.

“Moreover, the United Nations should ensure that those who perpetrate sexual violence are not allowed to serve in future peacekeeping missions,” she added.

“The world body could also make criminal accountability for criminal behaviour a condition of U.N. peacekeeping service through waiver of immunity so that peacekeepers could be tried in the countries where the violations take place,” Neuwirth told IPS.

Mavic Cabrera-Balleza of the International Women’s Tribune Centre says that U.N. peacekeepers are charged with the protection of civilians, but they are not always told explicitly that this means stopping sexual violence.

“And the demands on peacekeeping troops are so great that they may ignore anything they are not asked explicitly to do. The Security Council should provide clear mandates on this key issue,” she adds.

Speaking at the Security Council meeting in mid-June, Rama Yade, secretary of state for foreign affairs and human rights of France, criticised the peacekeeping mission in DRC for being indifferent to sexual abuse of women even by non-peacekeepers.

She said the U.N. Organisation Mission in DRC (MONUC) has the world’s largest contingent of peacekeepers totaling over 16,600 troops, and the women in Congo are asking: “What good is that presence to us, when we continue to be kidnapped and raped?”

“You see,” Yade told delegates, “the 200,000 women who have been raped in the DRC are expecting more concrete and timely results. They are asking me to present their petition to you. We must therefore take action. What can we do?”

The Security Council resolution, unanimously adopted on Jun 19, requests Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon “to continue and strengthen efforts to implement the policy of zero tolerance of sexual exploitation and abuse in U.N. peacekeeping operations.”

The resolution also urges member states providing troops and police personnel “to take appropriate preventative action, including pre-deployment and in-theatre awareness training, and other action to ensure full accountability in cases of such conduct involving their personnel.”

Charlotte Bunch, executive director of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership at Rutgers University, said: “Yes I do think that the Security Council resolution is another useful instrument in the effort to get better documentation and prosecution of sexual abuse and violence against women in conflict.”

Until this resolution, she said, “we could infer that this issue was a responsibility of the (15-member) Security Council, but some members of the Council had not seen it as such and argued that there was not enough evidence that this problem was of a magnitude that it should be on the Council’s agenda, and was not a threat to international peace and security.”

“Now it is indisputably on that agenda and the onus is on the secretary-general to ensure that better information is gathered on this issue in the field,” Bunch told IPS.

This of course, she pointed out, will require the investment of more resources and staff training to do so.

The real test for the secretary-general is how he will follow up on his commitment to strengthen U.N. efforts to combat violence against women, as he announced in launching his campaign at the meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women in March.

“In working to implement this resolution, U.N. agencies and peacekeeping missions must be mandated to provide more information and to use their resources to do so,” Bunch added.

Neuwirth of Equality Now said the United Nations could also do more to prevent these violations, and it would certainly help to have more women peacekeepers, especially in command-level positions of authority.

The other issue, she added, is “how can the U.N. create more pressure on national governments to prosecute peacekeepers who are deported for their abuse of women?”

As for accountability, Bunch said it is also critical to make certain that such sexual abuses are included in prosecutions of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.

“It would also be important for the U.N. to make national prosecution of peacekeepers charged with these abuses one of the criteria on which states were chosen to provide peacekeeping troops,” she said.

For many countries, she pointed out, U.N. peacekeeping is a key part of the maintenance and training of their military forces. Therefore, if this were seen to be a determining factor in whether they would be chosen to provide forces, it would add more pressure on them to do so.

Also standards could be developed for how best to train troops in the appropriate treatment of women and sexual violence can be part of the criteria for troops’ relationships to the community.

Overall, efforts in this direction have begun and additional pressure from the top, such as this Security Council resolution, can add momentum to the process.

“But they can only do so if there is an ongoing commitment to addressing this issue and recognition that it requires continual attention and resources, not just good rhetoric,” Bunch declared.

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