Introducing UN Resolution 2272: preventing sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeepers

by Dr. Sarah Smith.

Barack_Obama_chairs_a_United_Nations_Security_Council_meeting

A United Nations Security Council meeting

Sexual exploitation and abuse committed by peacekeepers – and others attached to peacekeeping missions – against the populations they are mandated to protect has been a recurrent issue for the UN. Recognising this, in March 2016 the UN adopted its first Security Council resolution aimed at preventing sexual exploitation and abuse (given the acronym SEA) by those under UN mandate. The development and eventual adoption of this resolution took place in response to widespread reporting of allegations against peacekeepers, especially in the Central African Republic (CAR), as well as claims that peacekeepers continued to enjoy impunity despite evidence of a widespread problem. This resolution – Resolution 2272 – bodes well for accountability for SEA within the UN, something that has been blatantly absent previously. However, it is not a panacea and much will depend on whether and how the resolution is fully implemented in practice.

From the 1990s, monitors in peacekeeping missions began to problematise the sexual conduct of peacekeepers, highlighting among other things issues such as the proliferation of brothels and prostitution at peacekeeping sites, peacekeeper involvement in trafficking, and rape and sexual assault. The UN mission in Cambodia is an oft cited case, made infamous by the head of that mission who responded with ‘boys will be boys’ when Cambodians complained of the sexual misconduct of peacekeepers. Reports have also found that sexual misconduct is not limited to peacekeepers, but that humanitarian and aid workers, government and non-government organisation personnel, and private military contractors commit SEA as well. The Dyncorp scandal, popularised in the film The Whistle Blower, is perhaps the best-known example here. Each time new allegations surface, impunity and lack of accountability are cited as major obstacles for both preventing SEA in peacekeeping missions, and providing justice to those survivors who do report.

The UN mission in Cambodia is an oft cited case, made infamous by the head of that mission who responded with ‘boys will be boys’ when Cambodians complained of the sexual misconduct of peacekeepers.

Following a 2003 bulletin from the Secretary General, the UN instituted a ‘zero-tolerance’ policy on peacekeeper SEA. Zero tolerance explicitly prohibited peacekeeper sexual relations with persons less than 18 years of age; exchange of money, employment, goods or services for sex; and sexual relations between UN staff and beneficiaries of assistance. Yet the zero tolerance approach has had its challenges and has neither improved accountability nor reduced the number of allegations of SEA made against peacekeepers. Due to the extent of under-reporting by victims, and a culture of not reporting incidences of abuse among personnel, zero tolerance is really only effective in those cases that are identified. In turn, because of the legal framework set out by the Status of Forces Agreement (an agreement between the host government and the UN concerning the privileges, immunities and criminal accountability of UN personnel and peacekeepers), close cooperation between troop contributing countries, who are responsible for prosecuting their personnel, and the UN is required. Troop contributing countries have proven reluctant to prosecute those who return with allegations of SEA made against them. While the UN can make moral claims about the ideal performance of its personnel, it has often claimed that it lacks the mechanisms to respond appropriately or enforce accountability given its lack of jurisdiction over peacekeeper personnel.

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A multinational group of peacekeepers march at a Bastille Day parade in Paris.

While peacekeeper SEA has been a recurrent issue then, it reached another zenith in terms of public attention in 2015 and 2016. Attention focused on allegations of child abuse by peacekeepers in the CAR, and particularly on the failures of the UN to respond to these allegations. In April 2015, UN aid worker Anders Kompass was suspended for disclosing to French authorities reports of French troop involvement in the sexual abuse of children. While he was eventually exonerated and reinstated, Kompass announced his resignation in June 2016, citing impunity for those who were found to be abusing their authority and lack of accountability. As a result of consistent allegations though, and the public attention they were garnering, the UN established an inquiry into peacekeeper SEA in the CAR, the results of which are yet to be made public; however early reports indicate a widespread problem of sexual misconduct, including allegations of rape of minors and forced bestiality. In late-2015, the head of the mission in the CAR was forcibly resigned by UN Secretary General Ban-ki Moon, a move that perhaps presaged what may become an enforcement of accountability up the food chain for the crimes committed by peacekeepers.

Also in 2015, the NGO Aids Free World leaked an internal UN report that highlighted lack of enforcement of zero tolerance policy, lack of reporting and resultant impunity for peacekeepers who committed SEA. Paula Donavan, who co-founded the NGO, also established the Code Blue campaign to end immunity for peacekeeper SEA and cites the misapplication of the 1946 Convention on Privileges and Immunities, via Status of Forces Agreements, as a major obstacle. The leaking of this report and the widespread reporting of allegations, especially in CAR, led the Security Council to consider a resolution aimed at preventing peacekeeper SEA.

As groundswell grew, a precursor to the adoption of Resolution 2272 was the Secretary General’s report on SEA released in March 2016, which, as well as noting that allegations had increased, for the first time listed the nationalities of those peacekeepers that had had allegations made against them. As part of previously instituted measures to respond to SEA, the Secretary General is obliged to report to the Security Council on the number of allegations for each mission and the status of investigations into those allegations. The listing of nationalities in the March 2016 report was a break from past practice: the long held claim that  ‘naming and shaming’ countries that contributed troops that went on to be accused of SEA would be reluctant to contribute troops in the future – not an insignificant concern given difficulties in raising numbers for peacekeeping missions. As the UN has frequently cited that accountability enforcement lies with troop contributing countries, the idea that naming and shaming those countries that do not act would force their hand is considered to be one tool in the UN’s arsenal for ensuring accountability. The reluctance to do this has been viewed as acquiescence to politics over and above the rights and needs of abuse survivors.

The reluctance to do this has been viewed as acquiescence to politics over and above the rights and needs of abuse survivors.

It is not surprising then that the UN has previously been criticised for an apathetic response to allegations of SEA. While the problem is by no means resolved, Resolution 2272 marks a new break, in some respects, from how peacekeeper SEA has been handled previously. It is the first time the Security Council has devoted a session to the issue of SEA, much less adopted a resolution devoted to preventing it. As well as reaffirming zero tolerance, it mandates for the repatriation of entire military contingents or police units with allegations made against them. This is a significant change, beyond a lackadaisical implementation of zero tolerance, signalling a preparedness to put prevention of SEA above the politics of the Security Council. Should repatriation of entire contingents occur, this would, in effect, be a ‘naming and shaming’ of those countries because the repatriation of entire units cannot be done discreetly. This makes the repatriation of entire units – when and if that occurs – a deeply political statement. The resolution notes that the primary responsibility of investigating allegations of peacekeeper SEA still lies with troop contributing countries, but in essence establishes a response mechanism – repatriation – if the actions of troop contributing countries are found wanting.

There are however, a couple of potential problems facing the implementation of Resolution 2272. First, is in defining what the resolution actually stipulates. As Kelly Neudorfer has pointed out, terms in the resolution – in particular the criteria of “systematic and widespread” and “credible allegations” – remain undefined: that is, what constitutes ‘widespread and systematic’ and what is considered a ‘credible allegation’? Furthermore, where is the tipping point that needs to be reached for the resolution, and thus repatriation, to be triggered? These as well leave aside the important question of whether repatriation of entire contingents will eventually occur, even if these triggers are both defined and met. Inherent in the sending home of whole contingents is a preparedness to name and shame countries whose peacekeepers abuse. Given how such processes can be politicised, it is important that the implementation of Resolution 2272 does not succumb to the same political machinations that have seen a deep reluctance to name and shame troop contributing countries take precedent over accountability for peacekeeper SEA.

Second, it is unclear whether the repatriation of entire units will lead to better justice outcomes for survivors, when and if repatriation does happen. Certainly there is an immediate effect of removing perpetrators from the environment in which they are committing abuses. However, in terms of broader justice outcomes for survivors, the repatriation process raises some questions, even if the opaqueness of the resolutions terms is set aside. In the past, individual perpetrators of SEA have been repatriated, quietly removed from peacekeeping sites. This has in effect contributed to the silence surrounding the issue, as the perpetrator is no longer accessible, to their accuser or to investigating units (both local and UN) that are under-resourced and/or unwilling to pursue the matter forcibly. Even if a worthy investigation is conducted, it rests with the troop contributing country to act on it, which has proven unlikely. Based on my research in Timor-Leste, the repatriation of individuals is actually associated with limited justice outcomes and continuing impunity for peacekeepers – it was a source of frustration that perpetrators would disappear, not to face justice in the country. No information on what happened to the accused was provided to victims once they were removed from the mission. To quietly remove an offender, where they are out of access of accusers, to a home country unwilling to prosecute, does little in terms of justice or real change in the institutional culture.

While the adoption of Resolution 2272 deserves credit where credit is due, there justifiably remain questions in terms of both its scope and implementation. These relate chiefly to the exact parameters of the resolution and what the terms therein mean, which in turn impacts when and how the resolution is implemented. At the very least, at an institutional level, the adoption of Resolution 2272 represents a rhetorical commitment, a break from past practice – some evidence of institutional steps towards improved transparency and accountability. The practice of Resolution 2272 will need to move beyond rhetoric though if the prevention – the stated aim of the resolution – and, ideally, improved justice outcomes for survivors, are to be met.

For more on this topic, read Sarah’s article in the Australian Journal of International Affairs.

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