The United Nations is meant to promote peace and security. But allegations of sexual abuses in its system beg the question of whether the organization is up to the task.

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A UN peacekeeper in Bangui, Central African Republic, 11 May 2015
(UN Photo/Catianne Tijerina)

By Jessica Moody

The United Nations was created to promote peace and security, yet increased allegations of sexual abuses by its personnel and peacekeepers beg the question of whether the organization is up to the task.

The UN reported in February that the number of new allegations of sexual exploitation or abuse rose to 99 in 2015 from 80 the year before — a 25 percent increase.

“The increase in the number of allegations is deeply worrisome,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a 41-page report.

“[M]ore needs to be done to reduce the number of allegations and, more importantly, the number of victims affected by sexual exploitation and abuse perpetrated by United Nations personnel,” the UN chief said.

Among UN peacekeepers, the number of allegations rose 33 percent in 2015 to 69 — “a marked increase”, in the words of the UN.

The actual figures are likely to be much higher, since many women, girls and boys are afraid to register cases for fear they will not be appropriately addressed, while others do not know how to report abuse.

The problem persists.

Within weeks of the report, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution aimed at curbing alleged sexual abuses by peacekeepers. The policy will see entire units of peacekeepers sent home if soldiers from that regiment are accused of sexual assault.

For the first time, the 15-member body listed the names of the countries of alleged perpetrators. The countries with the largest number of allegations for uniformed personnel were Democratic Republic of Congo (7), Morocco (4) and South Africa (4).

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The then head of the UN peacekeeping mission to the Central African Republic was fired in 2015 (EPA/STR)

This latest effort to curb assaults occurs as UN officials have expressed increasing horror at the rising number of accusations of abuse in the Central African Republic (CAR), where peacekeepers and French troops have been accused of misconduct since days after they arrived in the country in September 2014.

At least 10 international peacekeeping contingents have thus far been accused of abuse in that country, with the entire regiment of troops from neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) expelled for misconduct. In August 2015, the top UN official from the peacekeeping mission in CAR was fired for not taking enough action to prevent abuses there.

UN bases in the CAR have been covered with posters reminding troops of the rules of conduct, including that there is “zero tolerance” for sexual exploitation and that exchanging money or goods for sex is prohibited.

Yet the problem persists. In January the UN reported that peacekeepers had been accused of paying girls as little as $0.50 for sex at a camp in Bangui, the capital.

An independent panel appointed by the secretary-general found that the manner in which the UN had responded to allegations of sexual abuse “was seriously flawed”.

Indicative of much wider failings

Officials say the problem is linked to the bureaucracy and judicial failings of the UN, which requires peacekeepers to be tried for abuses in their own countries. This means that personnel accused of sexual abuse will be sent home, where troop-contributing countries often fail to bring soldiers to justice, creating a sense of impunity.

Sexual abuse among peacekeepers is of course not new, nor is the CAR the only country to be so affected. The DRC reported more than 150 cases of abuse and exploitation in the early 2000s, while Haiti and Kosovo were also badly affected by UN peacekeeper misconduct.

But the international organization intended to protect civilians and halt conflict has clearly lost its way if, when called into action, it is involved in the very crimes it is supposed to prevent.

Perhaps the allegations of abuses are indicative of much wider failings within the organisation and of a feeling of uselessness among troops sent to halt conflict in highly complex wars, with weak mandates that often prevent them from having a significant impact.

In the CAR, UN peacekeepers were sent to replace an African Union mission. But instead of reorganizing that mission, it re-hatted the AU troops as UN fighters with very little additional instruction or training. There have been suggestions from some UN officials that this absorption of AU troops into the UN mission did not occur smoothly and that coordination and collaboration have since been weak.

Some changes surely have to be made.

A closer look at the UN mission in the CAR illustrates further failings. Repeated outbreaks of violence in Bangui ahead of presidential polls at the end of 2015 suggested the UN mission was unable to keep the peace even in the capital. In other cities around the country, including in the volatile central city of Bambari, fighting continues almost unnoticed by the peacekeepers.

No doubt these military failings and a lack of clear objectives contribute to an atmosphere of low morale, in which soldiers feel a need to reassert their power in some other way.

Some changes surely need to be made. From sexual exploitation to the planning of peacekeeping missions to the vast swathes of bureaucracy undermining the international body and delaying urgent decisions, alterations are necessary.

How many more women and girls, already facing grave danger, will have to suffer at the hands of those sent to protect them before the problems are fixed?


Jessica Moody

Jessica Moody has been working in political risk analysis since 2013, with a focus on sub-Saharan Africa. Currently she is working as a political risk contractor for IHS. She has lived, worked and traveled in Togo, Ghana, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Kenya and Tanzania. She holds a master’s in International Relations from the London School of Economics.

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