Sexual Exploitation and Abuse: Allegations Against UN Peacekeepers in South Sudan and Beyond
By Maya B. Garner
In April last year, a story broke of allegations against UN peacekeepers of sexual violence against underaged girls in South Sudan. The case broke to the media after it was raised as a question by a correspondent during the daily press briefing on April 23rd. The media reported it as a case of child rape, though the statement subsequently released by the United National Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) clarified that there were no allegations made of rape, and that the case was instead that of a Nepalese contingent touching a teenage girl inappropriately in exchange of money. “Any act of sexual abuse is horrendous,” Stéphane Dujarric, the spokesman for the UN secretary general, António Guterres, said. “One involving a child is especially heinous.” A Sexual Exploitation and Abuse Immediate Response Team (IRT) was deployed to the area for information gathering and preservation of evidence; the incident was reported to the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS), an agency that is independent from UNMISS; and the Federal Republic of Nepal were notified and asked to appoint a team of National Investigation Officers to conduct the investigation. Yet this incident of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (SEA) was not a stand-alone case, and it remains unclear what the degree of response would have been, had there not been international media attention on the case.
Sexual exploitation and abuse is not out of context for South Sudan, in which violent rapes have been documented repeatedly as a recurring part of the conflict. With 13,000 soldiers as part of the UN peacekeeping personnel in South Sudan, armed UN peacekeepers inevitably form part of a militarized relationship with local populations, which likely comes to reflect similar dynamics found in the sexual abuse perpetrated by other soldiers and armed forces, which can adequately be named as CRSV – Conflict Related Sexual Violence. The Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict chairs the network UN Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict, which is based on the principle that sexual violence is not an inevitable consequence of conflict and must be prevented. However, sexual exploitation and abuse is diverse in its causes and manifestations, and goes far beyond the classification as Conflict Related Sexual Violence. A UN investigation declared in 2013 that Sexual Exploitation and Abuse was declared the most significant risk of UN peacekeeping operations.
A History of SEA and Responses
The issue of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse among UN workers first came to international attention in 1993 with a rise of prostitution in Cambodia as a result of the UN mission there. With UN peacekeepers directly and indirectly participating in sex trafficking in Bosnia and Herzegonia in 1995, the UN was only prompted to react four years later — as a reaction to the increasing media attention, rather than a reaction to the abuses themselves. In 2001, the Office of Internal Oversight Services verified a cases in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse of girls in refugee camps, a UN civilian staff member having a relationship with an underage girl in exchange of school fees, violent rapes by NGO staff, and peacekeepers committing rape of boys, the exchange of sex for food by NGO staff, and international staff refusing responsibility for children fathered with local women. The response of the General Assembly was to adopted a resolution and later issuing a bulletin outlining a zero tolerance policy for all UN staff and mission leadership. This response reinforced UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security (WPS), calling to protect women from post-conflict sexual violence. Yet in the first four months of 2016, the Office of Internal Oversight Services recorded 36 allegations of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in UN peacekeeping operations, including ten sexual assaults involving minors. It should be noted that the number of cases are likely inaccurate, due to potential underreporting of incidents and poorly managed data. A mere two months before the South Sudan allegations were made, The United Nations Mission in South Sudan called back a unit of members of the Ghanaian Formed Police Unit (FPU) after allegations were made of the members engaging in transactional sex with women living at a UN Protection of Civilians site.
Types of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse
As the examples illustrate, Sexual Abuse and Exploitation comes in a wide range of different forms and have different causes. Many of the cases reported by the media are only the highpoints of a much wider set of phenomena, often much more subtle in nature, yet equally evolving exploitation and abuse. Unlike violent assault, transactional sex may not always be defined as criminal. Yet the differences in power between a UN peacekeeper makes sexual engagements inherently exploitative. Instances of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse may be planned or opportunistic, forced or transactional with some level of negotiation, individual or part of a network of abuse. The perpetrator may commit forced rape or abuse of power, or they may be taking advantage of a coercive environment. UN peacekeepers engaging in sexual relations with members of a population who depend on them for aid can easily cross the line into abuse of power, occasionally taking the more severe form of offering food in exchange of sexual favors. Furthermore, as in the case of South Sudan, it may be argued that a conflict zone is inherently a coercive environment, making any sexual engagement between a peacekeeper and local exploitative. Sexual Exploitation and Abuse encompass a wide range of behaviors, which UN preventative measures have failed to eliminate.
UN Policies Addressing Sexual Exploitation and Abuse
A 2010 review by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee found a staggering gap between policy-making at international level and mission-level implementation, and staff had little understanding of the policies, which had not been communicated in the field. UN investigations into Sexual Exploitation and Abuse face a lack of sufficient evidence and underreporting of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse due to factors such as the victims’ fear of retribution from the perpetrators, the difficulty of carrying out investigations in existing crisis situations, and the departure of alleged perpetrators. Both troop contributing countries and UN officials displayed reluctance to hold perpetrators accountable.
In 2015, a scandal broke of the UN suppressing the release of a report of child Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in the Central African Republic, in which the UN was accused of holding image control in higher regard than the protection of civilians. The UN has devoted significant resources toward fighting Sexual Exploitation and Abuse, but regrettably the creation and implementation of UN policies on this issue have proved to be largely reactive, with international media and public outcries being the driving force. The question then arises – do the policies adopted appeal to an international audience or to the actual needs of the local communities? Furthermore, policies often places responsibility of the abuses solely on the individual perpetrator, focusing on trainings, standards of recruitment and codes of conduct, rather than fully addressing the contexts of the exploitations. The UN has still to address Sexual Exploitation and Abuse with proactive methods that sufficiently account for the various forms, environments, contexts and motivations surrounding the exploitations, and the challenges of investigating and underreporting, and the subtleties and power dynamics involved.