Sexual Exploitation and Abuse by UN Peacekeepers

French soldiers recently patrol a street in the Central African Republic capital of Bangui (source: AFP/ Getty Images)

French soldiers recently patrol a street in the Central African Republic capital of Bangui (source: AFP/ Getty Images)

This article will be published in Fightback’s upcoming International-themed issue.

By Cassandra Mudgway, PhD Student at University of Canterbury (UC). Vice President of the UC’s Feminist Society (UC FEMSOC). Twitter: @legallyfeminist

Peacekeepers: Perpetrators

Casual observation of media news stories would suggest that United Nations Peacekeeping operations have been at the centre of so-called “sex scandals” off-and-on for the last 15 years. The truth is far more insidious. Many allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse committed by UN peacekeepers are reported each year. Incidences of sexual abuse (such as rape, sexual violence, exchange of sex for aid or food, and paedophilia) have been reported from every area in which the UN operates (for example, Cambodia, Cote d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Haiti, Liberia, Somalia, and South Sudan).1 The latest series of allegations that hit the news included a rape of a 12 year old girl in the Central African Republic by a member of a UN military contingent (August 2015).2

Victims of sexual exploitation and abuse are overwhelmingly women and children.

Accountability for sexual exploitation and abuse is woeful. Despite the UN’s “zero-tolerance” policy on sexual exploitation and abuse, the organisation does not have the capacity to initiate criminal investigations or enforce prosecution. In the case of substantiated reports, the most the UN can do is send the individual perpetrator back to their home country (repatriate). It is up to the troop-contributing country to investigate and prosecute their nationals. However, states are in some cases unwilling or unable to exercise jurisdiction leading to impunity.

A lack of accountability means a lack of justice for victims and their communities discredits the UN’s position as a human rights “promoter”.

As a response to the first wave of sexual abuse allegations in the early 2000s, a UN official report3 recommended various reforms to the structure of peacekeeping. Such reforms included putting in place curfews and “out of bounds” areas (to minimise unnecessary contact with local women and girls). In terms of accountability, UN agreements with troop-contributing states attempted to “clarify” obligations, including formal “assurances” that states will exercise their criminal jurisdiction when they receive reports of sexual exploitation involving their nationals.

Ten years post-reforms, the situation seemingly remains the same.

An expert report leaked by AIDS-Free World4 earlier this year revealed on-going impunity. Despite increased training and awareness-raising, UN personnel claim ambiguity about what conduct constitutes “sexual exploitation” (see more below). Additionally, local communities either do not know about the “zero-tolerance” policy or are unsure about how to report incidences of suspected abuse. This has resulted in mass underreporting of sexual exploitation and abuse.

More disturbing, the report indicated a continued culture of sexual exploitation within UN peacekeeping operations.

Sexual Exploitation

Under the UN’s “zero-tolerance” policy sexual exploitation includes the following conduct: survival-sex type relationships (where sex is exchanged for assistance which is already owed, sometimes this is as small as a $1 or a biscuit) and soliciting sex from adult prostitutes. “Sexual exploitation” is about the abuse of unequal power dynamics between peacekeepers (particularly military contingent members) and the local population, who are often dependent on aid/assistance.

However, the official definition used by the UN is broad enough to include consensual sexual relationships:5

actual or attempted abuse of a position of vulnerability, deferential power or trust for sexual purposes including, but not limited to, profiting from monetarily, socially, or politically from the sexual exploitation of another.”

This, and the inclusion of prostitution, arguably removes agency from women who engage in such relationships. Sex is labelled the problem rather than the context in which it occurs.

Context: poverty

UN peacekeepers are often deployed to areas which are experiencing circumstances of conflict, post-conflict or post-disaster. Women and children are disproportionally affected within these contexts and are often displaced (relocated to refugee camps, for example) and become extremely poor. Suddenly, the presence of peacekeepers and humanitarian aid workers offers hope for those who are suffering and the differential power in this relationship becomes obvious. Instead of tackling the issue of poverty as a driving force of sexual exploitation, the UN has opted for a prohibition of sex.

Context: harmful masculinities

The countries which contribute the most troops to peacekeeping come from social and cultural backgrounds which are similar to host countries in relation to discrimination against women. Moreover, sexual objectification of women and gendered violence are magnified within harmful masculinities associated with militaries. An attitude of “boys will be boys” compounds any pre-existing gender and racial hierarchy within the local community. The result is a culture of sexual exploitation and an unwillingness to enforce standards.

For the UN to move forward, arguably reforms of accountability mechanisms and victim assistance must also take into consideration the wider context of harmful masculinities and gendered violence.

Critical mass: movement for change?

After the damning reports6 released this year, the Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, announced an external independent review7 into the allegations of sexual abuse in the Central African Republic and the UN’s response mechanisms (again, of course a similar report was issued in 2005). Civil society and non-governmental organisations (such as AIDS-Free World) have rallied this year to push the UN to reconsider the exclusive authority of troop-contributing countries to prosecute.8

In August, Ban Ki-moon removed General Babacar Gaye as head of the UN peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic as a demonstration of a robust response to these allegations, and one of the more surprising moves to come out of the Secretariat in recent years.9 However, the world has to wait and see whether individual perpetrators are also investigated and punished.

It remains to be seen whether this is the beginning of a serious challenge to the culture of sexual exploitation within the ranks of peacekeeping or whether the upcoming reports and reforms will once again fall to the lowest common denominator.

It will be up to the international community to continue to pressure the United Nations and troop-contributing countries for better accountability and demand an end to impunity.

NB: Cassandra will be speaking about her PhD research in this area at the UC FemSoc “Intersectional Feminist Day Conference” (Saturday September 12, Business and Law Building, University of Canterbury). Her PhD will be published in 2016.

1 See for example General Assembly, Investigation into sexual exploitation of refugees by aid workers in West Africa GA A/57/465 (2002); Human Rights Watch The Power These Men Have Over Us: Sexual Exploitation and Abuse by African Union Forces in Somalia (September 2014); M Pflanz “Six-year-olds Sexually Abused by UN Peacekeepers” The Daily Telegraph (26 May 2008); UNHCR and Save The Children-UK Sexual Violence and Exploitation: The Experience of Refugee Children in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone (February 2002).

2 Amnesty International “CAR: UN Troops implicated in rape of girl and indiscriminate killings must be investigated” (news release, 11 August 2015).

3 Secretary-General A Comprehensive Strategy to Eliminate Future Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in United Nations Peacekeeping Operations GA A/59/710 (2005), prepared by Prince Zeid Ra’ad Zeid Al-Hussein.

4 Dr T Awori, Dr C Lutz and General P J Thapa Final Report: Expert Mission to Evaluate Risks to SEA Prevention Efforts in MINUSTAH, UNMIL, MONUSCO, and UNMISS (2013) leaked by AIDS-Free World March 2015 see AIDS-Free World Open Letter to Ambassadors of All United Nations Member States (16 March 2015) <>.

5 Definition from the United Nations Secretary-General’s Bulletin Special Measures for Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse SG B ST/SGB/2003/13 (2003).

6 Above n 4; Office of Internal Oversight Services Evaluation Report: Evaluation of the Enforcement and Remedial Assistance Efforts for Sexual Exploitation and Abuse by the United Nations and Related Personnel in Peacekeeping Operations (May 2015).

7 G Russell “EXLCUSIVE: UN sex abuse scandal: Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon announces new inquiry” Fox News (4 June 2015)

8 For more information about the campaign (#CodeBlue) check out AIDS-Free World’s website:

9 C Anna “Ban Fires UN Peacekeeping Chief in Central African Republic” abc News (August 2015)

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