Angelina Jolie has made a surprise appearance at a major UN peacekeeping summit, where she told delegates from 80 countries that the organisation’s reputation had been undermined by intolerable cases of sexual abuse by peacekeepers.
The UN special envoy and actor described being moved by the desire for justice and accountability of refugee women she had met who had been abused by international troops. Jolie said on Thursday:
“We all know that the credibility of UN peacekeeping has been sadly undermined by the actions of a few intolerable cases of women and children being sexually exploited by the very people in charge of protecting them.”
Calling for the prosecution of peacekeepers who commit abuses, she said a new approach to peacekeeping was needed that had the “rights and protection and involvement of women at its heart”. She also called for more women to participate in missions. “Peacekeeping forces can only gain and keep the trust of local populations if they are able to engage with women as well as men in that community,” she said.
Sexual abuse and exploitation by peacekeepers, and the participation of women in missions, were among the key themes of the summit, following allegations of sexual assault in countries including Haiti and Central African Republic.
The defence minister, Michael Fallon, called for a “zero-tolerance approach” to the issue. There had been some “some shocking examples of poor performance that we can all deplore”, he said, which risked losing the “hearts and minds” of the people that missions aimed to protect.
Officials said the UN is taking sexual violence and other breaches of discipline increasingly seriously, and had set up a separate unit to investigate allegations that was separate from personnel on the ground. Where anyone misbehaves, the whole contingent will be sent home, and in some cases individuals have been prosecuted in their home countries.
But campaigners said this was just smoke and mirrors. “The problem is that the UN has a conflict of interest: it’s allowed to police itself, and it’s allowed to act as judge and jury,” said Paula Donovan, co-director of Aids-Free World, an NGO that runs a campaign, Code Blue, on sexual abuse in the UN.
Code Blue has called for independent organisations to be set up to receive, investigate and prosecute allegations of abuse by peacekeepers. Officials said this would be more cumbersome to implement than a UN-based team that already had the diplomatic status allowing it to act quickly.
The summit, which UN undersecretary general, Hervé Ladsous, described as the largest gathering in the history of peacekeeping, follows an event last year at which 50 nations pledged to increase their contribution to UN missions to deal with increasingly challenging and diverse threats. Barack Obama called on peacekeepers to play a more aggressive role, particularly on tackling Islamist insurgent forces in countries such as Somalia and Mali.
Delegates pledged more than 40,000 personnel – including soldiers and police officers – last year, on top of the 125,000 peacekeepers already operating around the world. Fallon said the aim was now to “turn pledges from paper into soldiers”.
The UN is also aiming to increase the speed with which it can react to crises as they emerge, Ladsous said. Currently it takes about six months to set up a peacekeeping mission, but pledges from last year’s event and Thursday’s summit mean the UN now aims to have a stock of pre-approved personnel so that it can deploy a “substantial brigade” within 60 days.
Britain has about 270 troops in a decades-long peacekeeping operation in Cyprus, and is now shifting its attention to Africa. Fallon announced on Thursday morning a planned deployment to South Sudan next year would now number 400 – up from 300 – along with about 40 personnel in Somalia. There are about 25 women involved in UK peacekeeping operations. Challenged on the comparatively small number of people the UK contributed, Fallon pointed out Britain was the sixth-largest financial contributor.
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