The Lingering Problem of Sexual Abuse and Exploitation in UN Peacekeeping

Every so often, there are headlines like this: “Central African Republic: Tanzanian peacekeepers to be repatriated following abuse allegations,” or “DRC: Eight UN Peacekeepers Arrested for Sexual Exploitation, One Officer Suspended.” The problem of sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) by UN peacekeepers and civilian workers has been an issue for decades and continues to be a problem for the UN despite recent reforms and calls by Secretary-General António Guterres to eradicate SEA in 2017. Given the scale of the problem and how it can undermine the security peacekeeping missions are meant to bring to countries, I chose to study this topic in Liberia, a mission considered to be highly successful. My research showed that even on successful missions, SEA committed by peacekeepers can have pernicious and long-lasting effects.

Despite Guterres’ pledge to eradicate SEA, the numbers indicate that it is in fact on the rise. Allegations increased in from 79 cases in 2022 to 100 in 2023 and these numbers are likely to be a gross undercount of what is taking place on the ground.  For one, the UN’s system of reporting is cumbersome and difficult to navigate for victims.  I know this because I followed an incident of sexual abuse by a UN peacekeeper perpetrated against a European researcher. We experienced difficulty figuring out how to even report the incident. The survivor was required to undergo multiple interviews at UN headquarters for the mission in Monrovia; and when the case was finally handed over to the country in question, they said they would need to re-investigate everything all over again. Ultimately, she decided to drop the case.  Her difficult experience clearly illustrated the challenges for a privileged, “Western” researcher to report a case and receive justice, and thus underscored the enormous challenges for locals who don’t have access to resources, information, and networks. It also simply might not be to the advantage of locals to report those who are supposed to be providing them with safety.

Transactional sex widespread on missions

Cases of exploitation are also likely undercounts because local women don’t necessarily have an incentive to report it because they may “benefit” financially from ongoing interactions with peacekeepers.  Indeed, my colleagues and I found that in 2012, sexual exploitation was rampant in Liberia. A representative survey of Monrovia, comprising 475 18- to 30-year-old women, revealed that about half of them engaged in transactional sex, and within that group of women, over three-quarters reported having done so with U.N. personnel. These are much higher levels than the UN reports.  Similar patterns have emerged in Mali, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and other large peacekeeping missions. 

On moral grounds, the UN should do everything it can to prevent both UN workers and peacekeepers from abusing, raping, and harassing local populations, and they should implement restrictions on sexual exploitation. Peacekeeping missions are meant to help people not disempower and harm them. Beyond a moral duty, however, sexual exploitation and abuse have long-lasting consequences that undermine the UN’s goals. The UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) exited Liberia in 2018, but  a recent representative survey found that SEA was the biggest, long-lasting problem with the mission.  The survey found  peacekeepers had children with local women and abandoned them; that peacekeepers broke up marriages; and that they expanded the transactional sex market.  These actions by peacekeepers, thus, clearly undermined the legitimacy of the mission. Research suggests that when citizens see peacekeepers engaging in SEA, they trust the mission less.  Indeed, one of the main reasons why Haitians are reluctant to have another peacekeeping mission in their country is because of SEA from the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). 

Not only does SEA delegitimize peacekeeping missions, but my research in Liberia also suggests that there could be even more pernicious consequences: it could encourage more sexual and gender-based violence by locals. When UN peacekeepers engage in exploitation or the payment of money/material goods for sex, or even when they develop longer-term relationships with local women, this has consequences for how local men interpret their potential for relationships and intimacy. Local men may feel threatened by the peacekeepers ability to provide more material goods to local women, and they sometimes retaliate by perpetrating sexual and gender-based violence.  This is not a phenomenon unique to Liberia, but rather a dynamic that is seen in many places where there are large influxes of foreign men who engage in short-term work on military bases in another country. 

Three possible solutions to sexual exploitation

This all means that there is a lot at stake if there is no solution to the problem.  So, what works?  We can break down the possible solutions into three categories.  First, there is a more punitive approach. The UN has had a zero-tolerance policy for SEA since 2003, whereby any sexual relationship with locals is prohibited.  Yet, the zero-tolerance policy is very difficult to enforce.  Prosecutions can only happen in the domestic court system of the troop/police contributing country. The zero-tolerance policy could have some drawbacks.  For one, some troop/police contributing countries might stop interacting with locals.  They erect tall fences, go on fewer patrols for less time, do not engage in community-based activities and create restrictions for peacekeepers to interact with locals.   While the point of these actions is to prevent peacekeepers from having the opportunity to engage in misconduct, they can harm the overall mandate of the peacekeeping mission.   Peacekeepers are supposed to go on patrols, spend time resolving conflicts among locals, gather intelligence, etc.  Prohibition on interactions with locals makes this less effective.  Moreover, if peacekeepers are determined to find intimacy, they may resort to harassing female peacekeepers or female UN workers.  Indeed, there is evidence of such “blue on blue” violence because of the zero-tolerance policy.   Finally, it is worth mentioning that some scholars have suggested that an absolute ban on sex assumes that local women have little agency in their decision-making.

Another punitive approach has been to name and shame troop and police (TCC/PCC) contributing countries.  Prior to 2017, the UN did not disclose the countries of personnel who received allegations.  This kind of naming and shaming allows other actors to punish the TCC/PCC when the UN is more constrained to do so (e.g. making certain types of aid such as security assistance conditional on improvements).  On one hand, research shows that this could reduce SEA. On the other hand, the publicizing might incentivize TCC/PCC countries to send fewer or no troops/police in the future if they believe they will be punished or shamed. The research also finds that this is also the case.  With fewer troop and police contributors to missions, it becomes more difficult to provide civilians protection.

A second approach to addressing the problem focuses less on the perpetrators, and more on the victims. This approach puts those who were harmed at the center of the response. The victim-centered approach includes appointing a senior victim rights officers in high-risk missions and establishing a victims’ rights trust fund.  Developing local partnerships, especially with civil society partners, is also key here, which the UN done but could expand further. This ensures that there will be groups to support women even when peacekeeping missions exit.  It also means that there are better reporting pathways to the UN and support for survivors who wish to report abuse or exploitation.  Yet, the UN could do more to support victims both while peacekeepers are present and once they leave.  They could provide reproductive, and mental health programs in areas close to peacekeeping bases where more of the SEA often occurs or in areas that are known to be “hot spots.”  Similar to the screening tools that many physicians use for intimate partner violence, they could also help develop a health screening tool that local physicians and healthcare provides use to determine whether exploitation or abuse is happening.  Lastly, they could work with secondary schools to develop a curriculum about sexual abuse and exploitation to raise awareness among younger populations.

Creating more professionalized missions

The third approach is focused on creating a more professional mission that includes improved recruitment, training, and culture.  Peacekeepers deploy based on being a part of contingents and sometimes they apply or are selected for positions.   At minimum, there should be a more stringent selection criteria that ensures that anyone who has been involved in misconduct at home or abroad cannot redeploy.  Here, the UN has introduced a ClearCheck system and misconduct disclosure scheme to check personnel history of UJN workers, but it is not clear if TCC/PCC are using the system.  In addition to screening out potential abusers, it is also important to select high-quality personnel, who will have the most impact on missions. This might mean increasing women’s meaningful participation in peacekeeping operation, although women are no more or less likely to find SEA problematic or report it because they are working within a heavily masculine environment.  Rather, what is just as important as selecting more women to be deployed is creating a culture where both men and women respect each other and respect the local population.   Selection criteria should thus include accomplishments related to promoting gender and ethnic equality in TCC/PCC security forces, skills related to community relations/conflict resolution.  Selection processes could include implicit bias tests and other measures of people’s beliefs about gender and ethnic equality.  Beliefs about equality are correlated with fewer incidents of SEA.  Finally, there is little evidence to show that the current pre-deployment training has any effect on reducing SEA.  As such, there should be an overhaul and piloting of different types of training to find an approach that resonates with personnel.  

There is no easy solution to the problem, but rather what is likely needed is some combination of all three approaches.  The time for these changes is now.  Despite larger UN peacekeeping missions ending, in countries like Mali, and a deadlock at the UN over deploying new missions, the move to more decentralized deployments as has been seen in discussions around Kenya’s possible deployment to Haiti and in Africa at large means that any progress the UN has made on reducing SEA through UN-mandated missions will risk becoming irrelevant.  Instead, the UN has an opportunity to set an example to centralize best practices on preventing SEA and making these practices a standard for any type of deployment.  The stakes are high if they do not take on this role.

Dr. Sabrina Karim is the Hardis Family Assistant Professor in Government at Cornell University.  She directs the Gender and Security Sector Lab and developed the MOWIP methodology to measures barriers to female peacekeepers’ meaningful participation in operations. Her research focuses on international involvement in security assistance to post-conflict states, gender reforms in peacekeeping and domestic security sectors, and the relationship between gender and violence.  She is the co-author of two books: Equal Opportunity Peacekeeping: Women, Peace, and Security in Post-Conflict Countries and Positioning Women in Conflict Studies: How Women’s Status Affects Political Violence

Share this article:


Related Posts

In Brief

Latest News

Join the Diplomacy Now Mailing list.

Receive each monthly edition direct to your inbox.