Thérèse, a 14-year-old in the Central African Republic, probably doesn’t know that defense ministers from around the globe will meet in London on Thursday this week to discuss United Nations peacekeeping. But she has a stake in what happens there.
Thérèse was one of eight girls and women who told Human Rights Watch peacekeepers raped them in the eastern town of Bambari. Thérèse described how a peacekeeper grabbed her as she passed a UN base. “We walked for a while,” she said. “Then he ripped off my clothes and used them to tie my hands behind my back. He threw me on the ground, placed his gun to the side, and got on top of me to rape me. When he was done, he just left.”
Thérèse is one of many survivors of such abuses. The UN’s oversight agency received 480 allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeepers between 2008 and 2013. At least 102 allegations were made against UN peacekeepers in Haiti since 2007.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon pledged reforms following a scathing independent report citing UN failures in handling peacekeeper abuse. In the Central African Republic, some troops have been sent home, at least in part due to allegations of abuses, and UN and national teams launched investigations. Prosecutions began of some peacekeepers from the Democratic Republic of Congo, accused of sexual abuse in Central African Republic, though there have been no convictions.
All too often when peacekeepers hurt those they are meant to protect, victims get little support or justice. Only troop-contributing countries can prosecute their own forces. Prosecutions and convictions are disturbingly rare, and information on their status hard to come by. According to Secretary-General Ban’s 2015 annual report on sexual exploitation and abuse, troop-contributing countries confirmed punishment of peacekeepers in only 10 cases.
Ministers meeting in London can address gaps in the system by requiring, as a precondition for participation, commitments from troop-contributing countries to hold their peacekeepers to account. Countries who don’t follow through should be suspended from sending peacekeepers.
More should also be done to prevent abuses. Ministers should commit to stronger screening mechanisms to weed out soldiers and police with histories of abuse, and require military forces on UN watchlists for sexual violence and abuse of children in conflict to meet benchmarks towards changing their standing. Standardized training on human rights obligations, and consequences of violating them, should be mandatory for all troops before and during deployment.
At last year’s peacekeeping summit, the US – UN peacekeeping’s biggest financial contributor – said it was committed to reform, including accountability for abuses. It’s time such pledges yield progress.
The UN relies on more than 100,000 peacekeepers to protect civilians in places torn apart by conflict. Failure of UN and troop-contributing countries to take all measures to prevent and punish abuses by these troops is unconscionable, and undermines the very idea of peacekeeping. And survivors know this. As Thérèse said of her rapist, “There should be some justice done to this man."