The U.N. Is Running Out of Time to Fix Its Sexual Assault Crisis

Cover image: Eduardo Munoz/Reuters

Few people would automatically link the United Nations with Hollywood’s Harvey Weinstein or Capitol Hill’s Roy Moore or Al Franken.  After all, the U.N. holds a reputation for giving much-needed aid and assistance to war-torn and impoverished communities around the world.  Yet even this organization is entrenched in a deeply-rooted sexual assault problem. In the city of Bangui, Central African Republic, alone, for instance, forty-two people — many of whom are underage — have reported sexual assault at the hands of U.N. peacekeepers since the U.N. mission started there in 2014.  These cases are in fact so common that the U.N. has even termed children born from such rapes as “peacekeeper babies.”  United Nations diplomatic immunity policy ensures that predators can operate effectively without consequences, even to the extent that the U.N. doesn’t publish all accounts of sexual assault and exploitation.


In 1946, the United Nations quickly enacted the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations, establishing a number of beneficial protections for its workers and missions around the world.  Most significantly, it rendered itself and its peacekeepers immune from host-state prosecution over the course of missions, preventing any potential sabotage but also laying the groundwork for abuse.  Peacekeepers’ actions from then on would only be held accountable by either the U.N. or their home countries. This and the UN’s general lack of transparency in such cases does little to discourage assault.

Ultimately peacekeeping troops are paradoxical.  Sandra Whitworth, the author of Men, Militarism, and U.N. Peacekeeping: A Gendered Analysis, defined militaries as inherently “premised on violence and aggression, [and] individual conformity to military discipline.”  Peacekeeping, on the other hand, ought to require opposing “attributes that may have been discouraged by traditional military training,” writes Deputy Director of the Centre for Women, Peace and Security at the London School of Economics, Marsha Henry.  Rape has often been weaponized as a tool of war all across the globe; but U.N. peacekeepers are not directly involved in conflict, and this lack of “an explicitly military role” is argued to complicate approaches to solving sexual abuse.  Former project leader for international justice at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, Kelly-Jo Bluen, argues that we view “peacekeeper sexual violence as ideationally distinct from other forms of sexual violence.”

“We operate in good and bad binaries. We see rape as… perpetuated by monsters.  As a result, the system is not able to accommodate acts of violence when it doesn’t fit our moral universe.  Our fixation [is] with the perfect victim and the perfect perpetrator. What this means is that if a perpetrator does not fit the idea of an ‘evil warlord,’ it simply doesn’t suit the narrative.”

Aid workers are supposed to be on the “good” side — so it’s hard for the public, organization officials, and the peacekeepers themselves to view their assault on the same level as the weaponized rape that is committed in the ravaged communities they serve.  Their actions seem fundamentally separate, so one reason peacekeepers may rape is simply because they don’t perceive themselves as problematic. In fact, Bluen, adds, “the U.N. Security’s Women, Peace and Security Agenda… view[s] peacekeepers as part of the solution to sexual violence, as opposed to complicit in it.”  This is of course ironic in and of itself, but also because some of the warmongering groups that the U.N. feels distinguished from have better accountability for sexual assault.  The violent Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, for example, reportedly “killed many thousands of innocent civilians,” over the twenty-six-year-long Sri Lankan civil war, and yet still managed to “severely [punish] sexual violence by its troops.”  If terrorists can be held more accountable for sexual violence, than the U.N. has failed.

The lack of proper training, consequences, and accountability of peacekeepers are surely factors in this horrific phenomenon; but many have shown that racism and a perceived superiority in an uneven power dynamic are its foundations.  Journalist Azad Essa reported that cases of peacekeeper sexual abuse occur in greater numbers in African nations than in “all other U.N. missions combined.”  Marsha Henry connects that the fact that many of these affected areas are former French colonies reveals the extent to which colonialism has continued to impact today’s instances of sexual assault.  The general dehumanization of victims also significantly contributes to the “justification” of rape by peacekeepers of all races. The 2015 book Peaceland by Severine Autesserre argues that the current design of peacekeeping operations establishes “a pervasive power disparity between the interveners and their intended beneficiaries.”  Newly-minted peacekeepers are given immunity and privileges that many have never had access to before; they’re brought into dire situations and told that they’re heroes saving desperate masses.  Outside of instances of assault, of course, the only times that most peacekeepers interact with local communities is often through parades in “armoured vehicles and blue helmets.”  It’s easy for many to separate themselves from local populations, and to develop a concept of “us” and “them.”  This Otherization and internalized egoism are the cornerstones of violence.


The U.N. started posting peacekeepers in 1948 but evidence of sexual abuses didn’t gain international attention until the early 1990s.  It took until 1996 for former Mozambican first lady Graca Machel’s report on peacekeeper sexual exploitation of children to begin debating the UN’s complete immunity.  Despite this issue taking “a top priority of the Secretary General and the entire leadership” of the UN, little has changed in the twenty years since.  Only four years ago French and Georgian peacekeepers were linked to multiple accounts of sexual violence against children as young as nine-years-old in the Central African Republic.  Two years later, forty-one abuse cases were reported by the U.N. in Burundi and Gabon, including six involving minors and eight involving paternity.

Of course, one U.N. Secretary General after another has publicly condemned these crimes; multiple member states have announced outrage.  But often their anger is focused on those who leaked the crimes rather than the criminals themselves.  In one instance, then director of field operations Anders Kompass filed an internal report revealing the sexual exploitation of refugee children at the hands of sixteen UN-sponsored French, Chadian, and Equatoguinean troops in the Central African Republic.  But the United Nations failed to act on or even recognize it, so Kompass revealed the confidential case to French authorities in July 2014. After an investigation, he was asked to resign in March 2015, which he refused; one month later, Kompass was suspended.  Though he was eventually exonerated, he ultimately resigned after twenty-one years of service.

On the 17th of June 2016 Kompass reported to IRIN that “the cost to the individual of behaving ethically is perceived as too great… the benefit to the individual of not behaving ethically is perceived as greater than the cost of taking an ethical stance.”

In September 2014, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a seventy-one paged report: “‘The Power These Men Have Over Us’: Sexual Exploitation and Abuse by African Union Forces in Somalia,” which revealed that the soldiers from the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) in Mogadishu both used humanitarian aid to pressure desperate women and girls into sexual acts and raped or sexually assaulted women seeking medical aid or water at their bases.  Often after rapes and exploitation, the soldiers or local intermediaries that actively aided in the crime would “reward” the victims with $10. This sexual exploitation was considered an “open secret” in the UN-sanctioned aid mission, which also includes a separate list of international donors from the European Union, the United States, and the United Kingdom.  But the report and subsequent articles hardly reached the U.N. Security Council, the victims often completely ignored.  Instead, the countries and multinational organizations that support the mission have either remained silent or rejected the assault claims.  One month after the HRW report, the Security Council passed Resolution 2182 (2014), giving “a green light” to continue the mission.

British Journalist Femi Oke reported after an investigation in Haiti that while “the U.N. claims the number of assaults has gone down,” in reality, “after almost two decades of impunity, these women told [Al Jazeera Fault Lines] they just saw no point in reporting the crimes.”  A 2017 AP report showcased that over the past twelve years, almost two thousand allegations of sexual assault and exploitation — more than three hundred of which involve minors — by United Nations peacekeepers and civilian personnel have been documented around the world.  Barely any of the attackers have faced justice — but now time is up.

Since the first release of reports of assault and exploitation, there have been multiple movements around the globe to end the violence.  Various U.N. secretary generals have released statements condemning the abuse and demanding action from member states, but little has been spurred to actually solve the issue.  After all, Chapter Six of the 1945 United Nations Charter only requires mere action, of some unspecified sort, from member states; there are no penalties for non-compliance to the resolutions calling for better behavior.

Former U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called this rampant abuse “a cancer in [the] system,” though the situation is not as incurable as it’s implied.  Mandates requiring greater transparency and more efficient investigation have the potential to quell these sex crimes.  The Secretary General’s request for finalizing six-month investigations reduced average case-appointment from two-and-a-half months to eight days and average national investigations from 266 days to 185.  An actual amendment to the Convention that provides diplomatic immunity excluding charges of sexual crimes could only be wrought by invoking Article 109 of the U.N. Charter, with a majority of Member States, including at least seven Security Council members, first approving a General Conference for the Convention review and then a two-thirds majority approval, including the five Permanent Security Council members, to pass.  The Convention itself includes a provision that grants the Secretary General the “right and duty” to waive peacekeeper immunity if it impedes justice.  This interpretative power could bypass the arduous bureaucratic amendment process for a more effective policy solution.

These peacekeepers defile morality, their nations and institutions, and the very symbol of peace, unity, and enduring humanity that they represent.  If nothing else, we owe it to the children and innocents that have already suffered so greatly the most basic assurances of protection. The world’s largest multinational organization — comprised of the world’s most powerful countries —  cannot hide behind empty promises and bureaucracy any longer. As Lieutenant General David Morrison proclaimed, “the standard you walk past, is the standard you accept.”  It is time to fund comprehensive investigations; it is time to fund adequate peacekeeper training; it is time for transparency and accountability.  If Hollywood and Capitol Hill can finally begin to be purged of sexual violence, so can the United Nations — and time’s up.