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Why Is Sexual Abuse Such A Problem With U.N. Peacekeepers?

These U.N. posters remind staff that sex for cash or barter is prohibited. United Nations hide caption

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These U.N. posters remind staff that sex for cash or barter is prohibited.

United Nations

Investigators discovered this month that United Nations peacekeepers in the Central African Republic were paying girls at a camp for the internally displaced less than a dollar for sex. It's the latest of several such incidents plaguing the U.N. mission there — 22 other cases of alleged sexual abuse or exploitation have been reported in the past 14 months.

The new allegations have surfaced just weeks after a damning report found that "gross institutional failures" in the U.N.'s handling of sexual abuse cases helped perpetuate the problem. The organization has been grappling with accusations of sexual abuse by peacekeepers for decades. When the first round of allegations in the Central African Republic came to light last year, Secretary General Ban Ki Moon referred to the issue as "a cancer in our system."

Part of the issue has to do with the way the organization is structured. The high demand for U.N. peacekeepers means that the the organization is constantly scrambling for personnel — so training and oversight take a hit. And if peacekeepers engage in sexual abuse, the U.N. cannot punish them directly. They're under the legal protection of their home countries, explains Sarah Taylor, a women's rights advocate at the nonprofit Human Rights Watch.

So what will it take to cure this persistent cancer? We asked Taylor to explain barriers to overcoming it.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Why are sexual abuse and exploitation so common in these peacekeeping missions?

I can't say exactly.

Yet clearly it is happening.

It's incredibly important to remember how vulnerable these communities are where the peacekeepers are stationed. Civilians and local populations have been subjected to all kinds of violence. There's been a breakdown of local governance, there's often food shortages. So there are all sorts of ways that these populations are vulnerable to abuse.

It seems that another issue is the way the U.N. is structured.

Part of the challenge is that the U.N. is dependent on troop-contributing countries for the staff that makes up these missions. And there is usually shortage of troops. So there's no consequences for these countries [if their representatives commit abuse] — the U.N. doesn't say, "Until you get your house in order, we're not going to accept your troops."

But the U.N. does have some leverage here — there's money they're providing to these countries for providing troops.

Do peacekeepers who commit sexual abuse face any consequences?

The U.N. itself has very limited ability to get judicial redress once these troops return to their home countries. It's then up to the home governments to decide what to do.

In Haiti a few years ago, Pakistani troops were accused of sexual abuse. So [the Pakistani government] actually created a military tribunal in Haiti to try two Pakistani soldiers who were then sent back to Pakistan to serve their sentences, in this case a year in prison with hard labor. That doesn't usually happen.

There is a very complex bureaucratic system of memorandums of understanding between the U.N. and those countries that provide troops. Within 10 days, member states are supposed to send in an update to say they're investigating these cases or prosecuting the offenders. But there's no consequences for countries that don't provide this information — so half the time they don't. It becomes extremely difficult to find out what happens to the troops once they're repatriated into their countries.

So what can the U.N. do?

There are things: strong leadership within the U.N. to follow up on cases, regular reporting so we have a better idea of how many allegations there have been — and of course, providing support and counseling for the survivors. Because this absolutely needs to be about the survivors. They're often left without medical services, they're often left without long-term counseling.

Are you optimistic that we'll finally see some progress on this issue?

This has been going on for such a long time. Since the 1990s, there's been allegations of this sort of abuse from peacekeeping troops and staff in Bosnia and Herzegovina, in Cambodia, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, East Timor, Haiti, South Sudan, Central African Republic. And the troops that have been responsible — at least the ones we know of — have been from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Uganda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and France.

Now there's finally a proposal in the U.N. that repeat offender countries will not be allowed to provide troops until they can demonstrate that they've addressed this issue. But we've yet to see if there's going to be follow through and if that's actually going to work.

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