(originally posted on The CIHA Blog, where I am an editorial assistant)
(Just before this post went live, the UN envoy to the Central African Republic was forced to resign because of the sexual abuse allegations.)
Recent reports documenting sexual abuse committed by United Nations peacekeeping troops in Haiti, Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, Mali and Central African Republic underscore the long history of sexual misconduct committed by peacekeepers around the world. With the recent spate of such reports and the UN peacekeepers’ obvious abuse of power, it becomes essential to examine critically the manner in which the UN responds to the accusations as well as the way the media presents these events.
In the recent article, “Could Peacekeeping Wives Deter Sexual Abuse in UN Overseas Operations?”, following reports documenting widespread abuses by peacekeepers, Thalif Deen asks, “As a preventive measure, would it help if peacekeepers and U.N. staffers are sent on overseas missions along with their wives, partners and families?” The article explores the notion of allowing spouses to join deployed peacekeepers, specifically male peacekeepers, as a viable solution to halt sexual abuse. Similarly, in a separate article, “Sexual exploitation by UN peacekeepers remains ‘significantly under-reported‘” the author quotes the new UN report, which states, “Staff with long mission experience state that was a ‘general view that people should have romantic rights’ and raised the issue of sexuality as a human right.”
These articles’ failure to mention the United Nations’ efforts to incorporate a gender perspective into all organizational policies – gender mainstreaming – as prevention of sexual abuse and exploitations in the UN’s peace operations highlights the ineffectiveness of UN efforts. Gender mainstreaming has resulted in women making up 13 percent of those deployed in UN peacekeeping missions; however, the first article’s proposed solution does not mention this, perhaps because women are not the ones committing sexual abuse.
Instead, the proposed solution perpetuates the idea that men, to some extent, lack the ability to control their sexual urges. Moreover, it deflects the blame from UN peacekeepers perpetrating these atrocious acts by suggesting the absence of a sexual partner drives men to sexually abuse and exploit the people they are sent to protect. Yet the age of many of the victims undermines the argument for “romantic rights,” with 36 percent of the victims reported to be minors and with evidence that minors were targeted for sexual assault even after previous reports drew public outrage. For the staffers claiming that peacekeepers should have better access to appropriate sexual partners in order to attain their romantic or sexual rights, this objective is at odds with addressing the power imbalances inherent in UN missions, which are tasked with ensuring the basic human right of physical security of the local population.
While certainly the majority of peacekeepers are law-abiding, acts of sexual abuse and exploitation continue to be reported, as peacekeeping troops continue to be deployed. Images of UN peacekeepers raping and abusing the very people they are sent to protect further complicate the neocolonial narrative put forward by opponents of peacekeeping forces, highlighting the UN’s work and response to the allegations as also gendered. Meanwhile, narratives that portray African men as violent and sexually aggressive persist.
A new narrative is needed, one that takes into account the intersecting power relations of sex, nationality and economic position, both in the UN’s work and in the media accounts that cover world affairs.
Travel and research notes
Fieldwork and travel in Côte d'Ivoire, Senegal, Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Mali, as well as Burkina Faso, Morocco, Tanzania, South Africa, and wherever else I end up. Plus occasional research-related thoughts.