Sex and the peacekeeping soldier: the new UN resolution

IssueJune - August 2001
Feature by Angela Mackay

The 31 October 2000 was more than just a Halloween celebration for thousands of women watching the UN Security Council on that day. Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000) was an unprecedented event—a unanimous adoption of the first resolution on women, peace and security. Among other features it calls for the prosecution of crimes against women; increased protection of women and girls during war; more women to be appointed to UN peacekeeping operations and field missions; and more women in the decision-making process at all levels.

Soldiers behaving badly

The role of peacekeeping militaries was a central concern in the open Security Council debate, and it resulted in strong endorsement for training initiatives for peacekeepers. No wonder. Peacekeepers' dire record on women has become a familiar feature of UN missions of the last two decades. Many of the complaints concern soldiers' sexual practices.

Take Cambodia for example. According to the Cambodian Women's Development Association, the number of prostitutes rose from 6,000 in 1992 to a high of 25,000. During the UNTAC mission (1992-1993), sex houses and Thai-style massage parlours proliferated. There was also a rise in child prostitution, as growing infection rates of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases among Cambodian prostitutes increased the demand for “clean young girls”. Some even claim that the United Nations mission was itself responsible for the rapid spread, and possibly even the introduction, of HIV in Cambodia.

But few UN missions have had an unsullied record. Those in Mozambique and Bosnia, to name but two, have both acquired a reputation for peacekeeper-organised prostitution rackets. In Bosnia and Kosov@, NATO and UN peacekeeping personnel are known to be important clients for the pimps and traders that make profit from “trafficking” women into sexual servitude.

Compounding the abuses of war

The involvement of peacekeeping personnel in sexual exploitation is itself wrong. Its context makes it doubly harmful. Peacekeepers arrive in the aftermath of wars that have themselves often featured very high levels of sexual abuse. In recent genocidal conflicts between ethno-national groups, civilian populations have been deliberately targeted in strategies that include “ethnic cleansing” and systematic rape. The majority of civilians are women, children and the elderly. Such women, besieged, displaced, imprisoned, have lost the security provided by male family members, and have become sole providers for their households, carers for those under attack. And all too often they have also been sexually assaulted during the conflict.

Further abuse by peacekeepers should therefore be unthinkable. But, after the horrors of war in countries such as Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Congo and East Timor, the peacekeepers fly in. They arrive from dozens of contributing nations. Their training is varied, they come from an array of cultural backgrounds and import their own perceptions of how men and women should relate and function in society. They represent— they are—the United Nations, a key ingredient in the search for peace and security.

Yet another man in uniform

How does the population see them? Especially, how do women see them? As saviours? As deterrents to more fighting? As yet more men in uniform: to be feared, to be avoided—or to trust? A couple of years ago a British Army recruiting advertisement on TV showed a woman cowering in a bombed building. As the film runs, a caption reads: “She's just been raped by soldiers. The same soldiers murdered her husband. The last thing she wants to see is another soldier. Unless that soldier is a woman.”1 The ad highlights the fear which many women must experience on seeing yet more men in uniform and positions of authority—even peacekeepers. One of the greatest challenges of any peacekeeping mission is to earn the trust of that victimised population.

The vast majority of peacekeepers do their job in good faith. They maintain the uneasy peace defined by politicians, a task full of ambiguity, tension and uncertainty. But too often incoming personnel are insensitive to local taboos and behavioural boundaries, so that their presence can be perceived as a continuation of assault and harassment. This may not be “lootpillageandrape”2. But neither is it excusable. When low-level abuse and harassment goes un-remarked and uncorrected it creates an environment ripe for more serious offences.

Deficient leadership

The fault rests primarily with senior UN personnel who have failed to draw the line, to establish and publicise clear, precise standards of behaviour. Soldiers, after all, are trained to follow orders. Where are the orders to soldiers concerning treatment of women?

In Cambodia, on a number of occasions, the civilian population brought the issue of UNTAC personnel drunk and disorderly behaviour and their fraternisation with prostitutes to the attention of the leadership, hoping for disciplinary action3. The response was disappointing. In effect, they were told, “boys will be boys”. Tacit blessing was given to untrammelled sexual exploitation: fit young men, bursting with sexual energy, have “needs” which must be satisfied at all costs.

UN Security Council Resolution 1325, while not drafted with the express purpose of correcting this mentality, is nonetheless a crucial instrument for peacekeeping nations, international organisations and women's organisations engaged in improving peacekeeper's conduct. It is reinforced by the recent judgement by Justice Florence Mumba at the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia against three Bosnian Serbs accused of rape and sexual enslavement, a conviction which has despatched into the waste-bin of history the customary “boys' defence”: I was only following orders. Both send important messages to a peacekeeping military: you are not only expected to arrest wartime offenders, but to control, and if necessary bring charges against, your own.

Training materials

In the spirit of the new Resolution, the UN, through the military division of the Department of Peacekeeping (DPKO) has embarked on the development of training materials on “Gender and Peacekeeping”. The finished product will be made available both to troop-contributing nations and to “in-mission” training cells. Since training is a national responsibility, it remains in the decision of troop-contributing nations whether to use the new materials in preparing troops for missions abroad. The “in-mission” training however will catch those who fall through the cracks, as well as provide local context and reinforce previous training.

The focus of the materials is to inform peacekeepers about the impact of armed conflict on gender relations, to teach them basic gender analysis skills, and to sensitise them to the implications of their actions. The material has been tested in East Timor, and tests in Eritrea are to follow. Both are missions in which there have been allegations of sexual assault by peacekeepers.

Unsurprisingly, the reception has been mixed. But the training initiative was warmly welcomed by one commanding officer who had to send a soldier home after he was accused of sexual assault. It had been a tough decision, since it would cost that soldier his career and his family's income. The officer commented on the urgent need for such training because, he said, troops, who come from many different nations, have little idea how to behave away from sheltered confines of home, exposed to apparently “available” women, and encountering other expectations concerning the conduct of social relationships4.

Consulting local communities

Training, while important, is not a cure-all. Solving this problem needs a multi-faceted approach with clear Codes of Conduct, widely distributed, visible and reinforced throughout the chain of command. It calls for real leadership, since enforcement is politically problematic. National commanders are loath to charge and send troops home, since such events bring disgrace and damage the national reputation.

The leadership must work with the local community. Rather than waiting for them to arrive on the doorstep with grievances, would it not make sense to consult on arrival with local leadership, and especially with women? Discussing with the community their fears—and the expectations and needs of peacekeeping troops—from the outset, would build trust and result in more effective solutions. It would reduce the isolation of the peacekeepers, and develop a sense of partnership. If trust is built early, violations will be reported quickly, and can be dealt with promptly and, especially important, publicly. The peacekeeping units will be seen as regulating their troops' behaviour rather than ignoring or concealing it.

Prostitution was not invented by peacekeepers, and host populations are not innocent bystanders in the growth of the sex trade. But women are put further at risk by unregulated and unchecked exploitation by peacekeepers, and it is good news that the UN has recognised a responsibility to stop this. Peace means safety from harm whatever the source. The security it brings should be for everyone, not just for some. Peace that is not inclusive does not deserve the name.

Topics: Peacemaking, Gender