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The Indian contingent of the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), consisting mostly of women, arrives in Monrovia, Liberia, to begin its tour of duty, January 2007. Image courtesy of UN Photo/Eric Kanalstein.

Women and Peacekeeping: Time for the UN to Commit to Gender Equality

Christine Chinkin, Marsha Henry and Aiko Holvikivi
Newsbrief, 15 November 2016
United Nations, International Institutions
UN peacekeepers are deployed to make local populations more safe and secure. They must not be allowed to become another source of insecurity for the people they are sent to serve. The new Secretary-General should commit to gender equality in order to ensure that peacekeeping lives up to its promise.

It was confirmed that the call by numerous women’s groups and campaigners to appoint a woman as the next Secretary-General of the UN would go unanswered when, on 5 October, the Security Council ambassadors announced that António Guterres would be the next person to lead the UN. The fact that we may have to wait another decade to finally see a woman in this position does not, however, mean that efforts to make the UN’s work more gender equal should be placed on hold.

The campaign for a female Secretary-General revealed a growing demand for gender equality more broadly in UN management and activities. As High Commissioner for Refugees, Guterres made remarkable progress in increasing the share of women in senior leadership positions at the UN Refugee Agency. If he wishes to maintain the credibility of the organisation, and of himself, as an agent of peace and human rights, he must stand by this commitment to gender equality in his new role.

This commitment is sorely needed in UN peacekeeping, where there are two areas in which the UN still needs to make considerable progress in regard to gender equality. The first relates to the continued problems of sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) in peace support operations. SEA reporting from 2014–16 shows that blue-helmeted peacekeepers have been committing acts of child abuse and exploiting women, girls and boys in internally displaced persons’ camps in the Central African Republic and Mali. While these incidents have led to the establishment of a new Security Council resolution and recommendations from the High-level Review of Resolution 1325 to set up better procedures for investigating such misconduct and international crimes, there remains an environment of exploitation and impunity in peacekeeping missions. These acts are not merely a product of military masculinities and subcultures; rather they are indicative of the ways in which peacekeeping operations perpetuate a range of inequalities.

The second area that the UN has highlighted as needing further attention is the presence of female peacekeepers. Seen as a panacea to SEA as well as providing a role model for local women, the UN has encouraged troop contributing countries to send more female personnel from within militaries and police. Despite the encouragement, few countries have managed to increase the number of women within their forces and the percentage of women military personnel still remains very low. However, countries such as India and Bangladesh have succeeded in deploying ‘all female squads’, consisting of around 100 militarised police women, who are specially trained in providing security and dispersing crowds and riots.

Yet, female peacekeepers are often hindered by patriarchal expectations in the field. They may be expected to stay within their ‘same sex’ group, and therefore may have limited contact with the local population. Although young girls may be inspired by their presence, this may not be enough to counteract the negative impact of inequalities on the peacekeeping environment.

In the absence of more female peacekeepers, the UN has developed and delivered training for peacekeepers as well as for local communities on the topic of SEA. Such training is a key tool to implement the organisation’s zero-tolerance policy on SEA. However, many aspects of this training remain open questions, and ones that the UN must grapple with if training is to be taken seriously as a preventative measure.

To begin with the most basic, let us consider the extent of the delivery of training. The website of the task force responsible for protecting local communities from UN staff – the Inter-Agency Standing Committee Task Force on Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse by Our Own Staff – boasts a wide range of readily available and high quality presentations, facilitation guides, posters, information leaflets and videos. However, the extent to which these materials are used in both pre-deployment and in-mission training remains unclear at best. 

The aims of this training appear to oscillate between knowledge transfer and attitude change. On the one hand, such training aims to inform peacekeepers of the types of prohibited behaviour that constitute SEA, how to report it and the repercussions that might follow. On the other hand, the training often aims to reveal the harmful effects of masculine entitlement, and to instil an ethic of professionalism and service, aptly captured by the title of the UN’s educational video ‘To Serve with Pride’.

Few would argue that more extensive training can definitively dissuade a would-be perpetrator from the more violent forms of sexual exploitation and abuse. However, what remains less clear is whether training can encourage reporting of abuse or cultivate a sense of responsibility towards the population the peacekeepers are meant to serve. Little evidence is available as to whether training can deliver on these goals, and if so, under what conditions, given that the quality, message and methodology of training that is carried out varies widely.

Finally, even if SEA training were uniformly implemented and its methodology was successful in creating full awareness of prohibited behaviour and reporting mechanisms, as well as fostering a change in how peacekeeping personnel view their relations with the local population, the message of such training is not uniformly considered desirable. Because the definition of SEA places violent assault and commercial sex in the same category of offences, training on the topic explicitly teaches peacekeepers that consent is irrelevant when it comes to SEA. Some commentators note that this simultaneously deprives local people – especially women – of any claims to agency in their own lives and trivialises sexual assault.

If SEA training is to be part of a serious effort to counter harmful practices by UN peacekeepers, rather than a superficial quick fix, these questions must be grappled with: Is training being carried out? What can it achieve and how? What kinds of understandings of, and attitudes towards, the role of men and women does it produce?

Another significant factor that undermines the credibility of peacekeeping is that while all UN personnel are bound by local law, the UN and its personnel have absolute immunity from the jurisdiction of national courts, ensuring that no prosecution can be undertaken in the host state. This stems from the 1946 Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations, which provides for the immunity of UN officials for acts committed in their official capacity, and which is agreed with the host state as part of the basis for their presence. Of course, SEA can never be part of the official functions of peacekeepers or humanitarian personnel, so immunity from prosecution for such crimes was not the intention. Nevertheless, this has been the norm, and although immunity can be waived by the Secretary-General, this rarely occurs.

Immunity is justified as upholding the independence of the UN, allowing its officials to carry out their functions without obstruction. It also protects UN personnel from unwarranted prosecutions or proceedings in local courts that lack conformity with due process. But, and especially in the case of SEA, it can cause local resentment, undermine the effectiveness of the mission and bring discredit to the UN. It also taints the work of peacekeepers as a whole.

Discipline and legal proceedings – if warranted against wrongdoers – are the responsibility of the troop contributing country, but this is difficult when the evidence and witnesses are in the host country. Most frequently, the consequence – if at all – is that the wrongdoer is returned home, perhaps even to redeployment elsewhere. Nor is the UN informed of any subsequent action that might be taken.

After the introduction of its zero-tolerance policy, the UN has made some progress in reducing the incidence of sexual abuse by peacekeepers, but lack of accountability and transparency continue to undermine confidence. Renewed allegations of serious misconduct by peacekeepers in 2015, notably in the Central African Republic, led Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to appoint a High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations to review the issue.

Further measures have also been put in place, including the establishment of a new position, a Special Coordinator on Improving the United Nations Response to Sexual Exploitation and Abuse. The Security Council also renewed its commitment to stronger measures against wrongdoers. In Resolution 2272, adopted in March 2016, the Council endorsed the Secretary-General’s decision to repatriate an entire military or police unit where ‘there is credible evidence of widespread or systemic sexual exploitation and abuse by that unit’. The Secretary-General is also requested to replace troops from a country ‘whose personnel are the subject of an allegation or allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse’ and which has failed to act appropriately in response. Given the increasing number of peacekeeping operations and the difficulties facing the Secretary-General in finding adequate numbers of military and police personnel to fulfil Security Council mandates, this could be a stringent requirement.

Recent reports have made stronger recommendations focusing more directly on direct UN action against accused individuals. For example, the Global Study on the Implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on women and peace and security, Preventing Conflict, Transforming Justice, Securing the Peace, proposed a discussion with all relevant stakeholders to explore the feasibility of setting up an International Tribunal for Sexual Exploitation and Abuse by UN peacekeepers and UN staff in the field. The UK House of Lords Select Committee’s April 2016 report, ‘Sexual Violence in Conflict: A War Crime’, recommended the UK government use its influence to seek ‘greater transparency with regards to the collection of data and reporting of allegations of SEA’ by peacekeepers and that it should pursue the option of the establishment of a ‘tribunal “light” model’. Witnesses to the committee suggested that such a tribunal would comprise a standing roster of international and independent judges and potential staff that could be called upon as appropriate and would be available to sit where required.

In order to demonstrate that he is a man capable of working for the security of all – including women – the new Secretary-General must devote attention to ensuring that peacekeeping really does make its intended beneficiaries more, not less, safe and secure. One way to do this is by taking seriously these recommendations for a more robust way of ensuring the accountability of those who commit sexual violence in abuse of their position of trust, and to secure justice for those who have suffered in this way.

But ensuring that the blue helmets do not themselves become a source of insecurity is only a starting point. In order to deliver on the organisation’s promise of peace and security, the Secretary-General must take the myriad roles and expectations of women seriously, not only as victims of violence, but also as peacekeepers, combatants, peacemakers and human beings with certain inalienable rights and fundamental freedoms.

Christine Chinkin is Director of the Centre for Women, Peace and Security at LSE and has conducted research on sexual violence in conflict, women's rights and international humanitarian law.

Marsha Henry is Associate Professor in the Gender Institute at LSE and has conducted research on the lived experiences of peacekeepers. Twitter: @mghacademic

Aiko Holvikivi is a PhD candidate at the LSE Gender Institute, where she conducts research on gender training for uniformed peacekeepers. Twitter: @AikoIiris

Banner image: The Indian contingent of the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), consisting mostly of women, arrives in Monrovia, Liberia, to begin its tour of duty, January 2007. Courtesy of UN Photo/Eric Kanalstein. 

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