United Nations peacekeeping operations (PKOs) involve over 125,000 soldiers deployed in sixteen countries, with a total budget of nearly $8 billion. Their missions range from interposing themselves between combatants to providing relief from a health or environmental crisis. These missions are difficult to organize and finance, yet often represent the only alternative to large-scale loss of innocent lives. As welcome as “blue helmets” may be in very trying circumstances, however, there is a major negative: UN peacekeeping soldiers sometimes do more harm than good.
All too often, UN soldiers behave just as badly as the soldiers they are meant to deter, raping and pillaging in complete violation of their mission and to the great discredit of the organization itself. Following on widely publicized cases of sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers in Bosnia and Kosovo in the early 1990s, a UN-commissioned study in 1996 on the fate of children in war noted: “Children may also become victims of prostitution following the arrival of peacekeeping forces. In Mozambique, after the signing of the peace treaty in 1992, soldiers of the United Nations Operation in Mozambique (ONUMOZ) recruited girls aged 12 to 18 years into prostitution. After a commission of inquiry confirmed the allegations, the soldiers implicated were sent home. . . . In 6 out of 12 country studies on sexual exploitation of children in situations of armed conflict prepared for the present report, the arrival of peacekeeping troops has been associated with a rapid rise in child prostitution.”
The study recommended: “Prevention of gender-based violence should include a role for the military, and United Nations peacekeepers in particular. Senior officers often have turned a blind eye to the sexual crimes of those under their command, but they must be held accountable for both their own behaviour and that of the men they supervise. The 12 case studies on gender-based violence prepared for the present report found the main perpetrators of sexual abuse and exploitation to be the armed forces of parties to a conflict, whether governmental or other actors. Military training should emphasize gender sensitivity, child rights and responsible behaviour towards women and children. Offenders must be prosecuted and punished for acts against women and children.” (http://www.unicef.org/graca/a51-306_en.pdf )
But the UN took none of these steps. Thus: “There were 99 allegations of sexual abuse against UN staff last year, a 25 percent increase over 2014, affecting peacekeeping operations in countries including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Haiti, Ivory Coast, Libya, Mali and Sudan” (www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-06-16/rape-scandal-of-un-peacekeepers-festers-as-reports-of-abuse-grow). “Failure to investigate and act” is part and parcel of the problem. In most cases, it seems that the UN secretary-general became aware of the problem but chose not to take immediate action. Other UN agencies likewise have turned a blind eye to reports of rape and human trafficking.
In 2013 French peacekeepers not directly under UN command raped boys at a refugee camp in Central African Republic, and the next year, when a formal UN PKO took over, more than forty cases of sexual abuse, mostly of girls, were reported. In the latter case, only one abuser was charged with a crime (www.washingtonpost.com/sf/world/2016/02/27/peacekeepers/). An internal UN report said: “The end result was a gross institutional failure to respond to the allegations in a meaningful way. . . . In the absence of concrete action to address wrongdoing by the very persons sent to protect vulnerable populations, the credibility of the UN and peacekeeping operations are in jeopardy” (www.bloomberg.com report above).
When wrongdoing by peacekeeping soldiers occurs, the UN’s usual response is to send the soldiers home. The UN is not allowed to arrest and prosecute; only a soldier’s own government has those powers, and they are rarely used. Of course there is much talk about having better trained soldiers and more of them, including more female soldiers, but the wheels grind slowly. What remains in place is perhaps best described by Salil Shetty, Amnesty International’s secretary-general: a culture of impunity. “If people feel and know they are not going to get away with this, we’ll have a whole different system,” he said. “If the U.N. can’t ensure accountability on something like sexual violence, how is the U.N. able to talk to anybody else? I think there’s a massive gap and much more to be done” (http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/9/28/sex-abuse-scandals-cast-shadow-over-un-peacekeeping-summit.html).
The UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti in 2010, following on a massive earthquake, is another example of peacekeeping gone awry. A special rapporteur appointed by the UN has reported that waste from the UN base established in Haiti was the likely source of a cholera outbreak that has killed at least 10,000 people. Though the UN leadership has finally taken some responsibility for the consequences, it has thus far refused to make payments to the victims’ families. This prompted the rapporteur to say that the UN “upholds a double standard according to which the U.N. insists that the member states respect human rights, while rejecting any responsibility for itself” (www.nytimes.com/2016/08/18/world/americas/united-nations-haiti-cholera.html).
Then there are the cases in which the UN PKO sits on its hands in the midst of terrible violence. The Rwanda genocide is surely the best known instance. But now we have South Sudan, where the PKO has just been increased to 16,000 soldiers in response to a breakdown of a peace agreement in the civil war. The UN mission is being accused of failing to prevent violence, widespread sexual abuse by local soldiers, and looting of food supplies. The UN contends that forces loyal to the government are mainly responsible (www.nytimes.com/2016/08/05/world/africa/south-sudan-violence-rapes.html) for atrocities committed against civilians, but the peacekeeping operation has done little to stop it. Foreign aid workers, who face enormous obstacles as people flee the country and hunger increases, have lately been a principal target of government-backed soldiers (www.nytimes.com/2016/08/18/world/africa/united-nations-south-sudan-peacekeepers.html). The secretary-general has expressed “outrage” and ordered a special investigation. By the time the investigation ends and some action is taken, we can imagine what the death toll will be.
There is no question in my mind that we need international peacekeepers trained to prevent or at least minimize violence and to respect UN conventions on the rights of children, women, and refugees. When performed properly, PKOs are worth every penny; their total budget is less than one tenth of one percent of global military spending. But those at the UN who are responsible for PKOs, and who are always pleading for more money and other resources, need to take a hard look in the mirror. Too many peacekeeping soldiers have engaged in criminal or grossly negligent behavior, and the UN leadership has often done little more than cover up the problem or, when pushed, study it.