Emma Phillips | National Post
In recent months, numerous allegations of sexual violence by peacekeepers in the Central African Republic have come to light, including demanding sex from children in exchange for food rations, buying sex for as little as 50 cents from forced prostitution rings, and violently assaulting children and women. Unfortunately, sexual violence by peacekeepers is not limited to this one African country, but has plagued numerous UN missions since at least the 1990s.
The Secretary General of the United Nations has called such allegations “appalling” and a “cancer in our system.” In the face of such ugly and repeated crimes, the question becomes, however, whether the UN will respond with more than rhetoric. Responding effectively to these serious human rights violations is important not only to the victims (and potential future victims) themselves, but also to the international community more broadly. If peacekeepers are allowed to continue to commit such crimes with impunity, then the future of peacekeeping operations — a critical tool in international peace and security — is put at risk.
Last December, an Independent Panel appointed by the UN and chaired by retired Canadian Supreme Court Judge Marie Deschamps issued a detailed and comprehensive report examining the failures of the UN to confront the issue of sexual violence by peacekeepers. The Panel stressed the need for concrete action and made specific recommendations to the UN to prevent the recurrence of sexual violence. Perpetrators need to know that sexual violence will be met with serious repercussions, the Panel found, including criminal sanctions. Unless allegations of sexual abuse are met with quick and decisive action by the UN, a culture of impunity will prevail.
Countries that commonly contribute troops to peacekeeping missions — many of which depend on peacekeeping operations as a significant source of national revenue — often have little incentive to prosecute their soldiers for crimes of sexual violence. In some cases the military of the Troop Contributing Country (TCC) itself faces accusations of serious human rights violations in its own country. In such circumstances, there may be little political will on the part of the TCC to prosecute their soldiers and the worst consequence a soldier may face is suspension or dismissal — and that’s in the rare case where a victim has had the courage to come forward and identify a perpetrator.
Agreements signed between the UN and TCC’s provide that, where a TCC chooses not to prosecute, the host country has no jurisdiction itself to take legal action against the soldier, leaving a major gap in accountability. One significant step the UN could take to address the impunity of peacekeepers who choose to prey on vulnerable civilians would be to insist that both the host country and the TCC have jurisdiction — if the TCC chooses not prosecute the perpetrator, the host country would still have that option.
Making such changes (and implementing the other recommendations of the Independent Panel) will require real political will, both on the part of the UN and of its member states. The countries that fund peacekeeping operations, Canada included, have an obligation to continue to pressure the UN and TCCs to hold peacekeeping troops accountable for their actions. If not, the very purpose of peacekeeping operations — to stabilize and bring peace to a country that can no longer protect its citizens — is undermined. As the Independent Panel points out, when peacekeepers exploit the vulnerability of the very people they have been sent to protect, they commit a fundamental betrayal of trust.
Such acts are not only harmful and traumatic for the individual victims, they damage the credibility of peacekeepers (and the international community they represent) in the eyes of the local population. A peacekeeping mission cannot legitimately advise the local government on adherence to international human rights law when its own peacekeepers are guilty of gross violations of these principles. Sexual exploitation of the civilian population may also spark violent retaliation against UN personnel, further endangering the purpose of the mission. Sexual violence by peacekeepers is therefore not only damaging to the individual victims, but jeopardizes the very future of peacekeeping operations.
Peacekeepers command our deep respect and gratitude for the important and valuable role they play in protecting the lives of civilians, often at great personal risk to themselves. In the Central African Republic, peacekeepers may well have averted the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians. Yet the repeated incidents of sexual violence cannot be ignored or minimized. If the UN is to regain its credibility and protect the long-term sustainability of peacekeeping missions, it must stop lurching from crisis to crisis, scandal to scandal, and take concrete and decisive action to address sexual violence by peacekeepers. There is no more room for rhetoric.
Emma Phillips was counsel to the Independent Panel on Sexual Exploitation and Abuse by International Peacekeeping Forces in the Central African Republic. She is a partner at Goldblatt Partners LLP.