In-depth: Our Bodies - Their Battle Ground: Gender-based Violence in Conflict Zones
AFRICA-ASIA: UN peacekeeping - working towards a no-tolerance environment
Peacekeepers in Liberia and DRC have been accused of sexual violence against woman and girls
NAIROBI, 1 September 2004 (IRIN) - Allegations of sexual violations perpetrated by some UN peacekeepers in the last two years have been widely reported by media and human rights groups. As the UN undertakes an increasing number of peacekeeping missions, the organisation faces the challenge of how to maintain ethical standards and codes of behaviour among its disparate troops, a challenge that the head of the UN mission in Burundi, Carolyn McAskie, told IRIN she is actively working to address in the Central African country.
Appointed Special Representative of the Secretary-General to Burundi in June this year, McAskie has a UN force composed of troops from five member countries. Troops from three of these have been named in alleged rape and sexual abuse scandals in neighbouring DRC.
McAskie told IRIN that the UN was aware of the allegations and working to create an environment in which abuse would not be tolerated, a message that she had relayed in her first meeting with Burundi President Domitien Ndayizeye. She also had the unequivocal support of the mission's Force Commander, Lieutenant-General Derrick Mgwebi of South Africa, she added.
When reports of sexual abuses by some UN personnel in West Africa emerged in 2002, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan stated a clear policy of zero-tolerance for sexual misconduct by staff. However, subsequent allegations of exploitation and abuses by peacekeepers emerged in Kosovo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
In the DRC, some UN soldiers were accused of sexually abusing minors under the age of 18, trading food for sex, child rape and organising a child prostitution ring in Bunia, north eastern DRC. [See Focus on sexual misconduct by UN personnel
However, the DRC is by no means the first documented case of sexual violation by UN peacekeepers. Human Rights Watch reported on several cases of sexual violence by peacekeepers with the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL), including the rape of a twelve-year-old girl in Bo by a soldier of the Guinean contingent, as well as the gang rape of a woman by two Ukrainian soldiers near Kenema.
Taking decisive action
Anna Stotton, DPKO's New York-based focal point on sexual exploitation and abuse, told IRIN that the Sierra Leone scandal had served as the wake-up call for the UN. As such, there was a realisation that issues of discipline in peacekeeping operations had to be centralised within the organisation.
|Carolyn McAskie, Undersecretary General for Burundi
In response, DPKO has developed disciplinary directives for all personnel serving in peace operations; it has participated in an Inter-Agency Standing Committee Task Force on sexual exploitation and abuse; developed guidelines and trained peacekeepers in the DRC and Sierra Leone, said Stotton.
In order to overcome reported shortcomings in monitoring mechanisms, the UN has also set up system-wide focal points responsible for dealing with charges of gender-based violence. In peacekeeping missions, these Personnel Conduct Officers are appointed as focal points on sexual exploitation, charged with monitoring incidents and identifying patterns at the outset.
At present, this is perceived to be the most effective means of monitoring potential abuses, said Stotton. One such officer in MONUC uncovered the exploitation scandal in Bunia, after investigating local media reports from the region.
All 17 peacekeeping missions have these officers, supported by standardised policy guidelines and training. An information sheet has been developed for local populations, informing them on the codes of conduct that bind peacekeeping troops, said Stotton.
Some institutional obstacles remain. The UN Secretary-General issued a bulletin in 2003 setting out directives on conduct and behaviour for all UN personnel deployed to conflict areas. However, this does not formally bind military troops. Unlike UN civilian personnel who are accountable to the Secretary-General, peacekeeping troops remain answerable to their own national military authorities.
This applies equally to issues of sexual misconduct. "There is nothing that we can do to discipline military troops, except in the case of rape, where a mission can launch a board of inquiry which could lead to a recommendation for repatriation," said Stotton.
McAskie told IRIN that the UN was not in the business of running military tribunals or court martials. "But we definitely need to develop ways to make our troops more accountable to the system they are working under." A list of convicted perpetrators was being prepared by the UN, so that they could never work on another peacekeeping mission, but that did not ensure that they would be punished in their home countries, she said.
McAskie aims to prevent incidents of abuse through improved training. She told IRIN that UN mission staff in Burundi had been drafting a code of behaviour and preparing training courses to sensitise troops to gender equality and human rights issues.
Stotton agreed that much could be done through training and creating greater awareness of sexual exploitation issues. "Some troops do not even realise that prostitution, or having sex with minors under the age of 18, is illegal." Often the age of consent might be different in the countries from which they originate, and national laws relating to prostitution may be lenient or not enforced.
Key to breaking the cycle
"We're trying to push for one UN mission, one standard for everyone. We can't have military troops under one set of guidelines and civilians under another," said Stotton. A pilot model for sexual exploitation and abuse had been developed and was available for any military or civilian police serving in a peacekeeping mission. Subsequent training programmes would be prepared for middle and senior management, to ensure that leaders sent out clear signals, creating an environment of zero-tolerance for abuse, she added.
"We're not here to fight the 'bad apples' in a mission. We're conveying that there is a policy stance on this issue and that this may be different to a troop's national standard. And if something happens, it's not because we haven't trained them," Stotton said.
Meanwhile in Burundi, the sheer increase in numbers of soldiers on the ground has created an added burden, that of prostitution. "With more soldiers in the area, 'sex workers' are gathering at the borders. They know the men are being paid and they desperately need income. This is not the kind of income producing activity that we have envisioned for local women," McAskie told IRIN. With over 5,000 young male soldiers in the peace-keeping mission there, the challenge to the UN to maintain acceptable codes of behaviour among the soldiers was formidable, she said.