Why Stopping Peacekeeper Abuse is So Politically Difficult. And So Very Important

In a rather extraordinary move, Ban Ki Moon today demanded the resignation of the head of the UN peacekeeping mission in Central African Republic over allegations that peacekeepers engaged in some heinous acts.

These latest accusations, laid bare in a report published yesterday by Amnesty International, accused peacekeepers from Cameroon and Rwanda of raping a 12- year-old girl; and in a separate incident indiscriminately firing into a home, killing a boy and his father. These accusations come on the heels of separate accusations that French soldiers–who were not operating under the UN flag–engaged in widespread sexual abuse.

A secretary general demanding the resignation of his head of mission so publicly and swiftly is basically unheard of. It speaks to the seriousness of these allegations at hand, and also to deeper structural challenges the UN faces in preventing abuses like this from happening in the first place.

Why sexual abuse is so, so detrimental to UN Peacekeeping

Sexual abuse and exploitation is obviously a horrible crime for those who experience it. But in the context of a UN peacekeeping mission, it can also have grave global security implications. That is because the success of a peacekeeping mission rests on whether or not the population believes foreign peacekeepers are operating in their best interests. In other words, a mission’s success ultimately hinges on whether or not the public considers the blue helmets in their midst to be a legitimate and credible force.

Peacekeeping has a long track record of success in helping countries transition from war and conflict. For the most part, that is because people have accepted peacekeepers in their community because it usually means that conflict is coming to a close and their physical security is improving.  And, in places like South Sudan that are beset by conflict, peacekeepers can offer a refuge–tens of thousands of displaced South Sudanese are huddled in peacekeeping bases right now.

Rape and abuse by peacekeepers are so insidious not only for of the pain experienced by individual victims, but because it threatens to undermine the legitimacy of the entire peacekeeping operation in the eyes of the community they are meant to be helping. This diminishes the prospects of success of the entire mission.

In fragile places where peacekeepers are deployed, mission failure means more war and more conflict.

But it is so, so hard to punish

Abuses by peacekeepers may threaten mission success, but the ability of the United Nations to deter these crimes through the threat of punishment is rather limited. Ban Ki Moon, or any other UN official, has no ability to criminally prosecute blue helmets. Rather, that responsibility lies solely with the governments of troop contributing countries. The reason for this is entirely political: no country wants to submit its own soldiers to criminal prosecution by a foreign entity. (Can you imagine the US government consenting to letting the UN or some other foreign body prosecute American soldiers for what are essentially war crimes?)

This means that the most the United Nations can do is repatriate the accused–demand they return home to face prosecution. Countries, for whatever reason, may slow walk investigations or even decline to prosecute all together, which is hardly satisfying for the victims. Even when a country does hand down convictions, the punishments may not fit the crime. A field courts-marshall by Pakistani authorities in Haiti handed down a sentence of just one year for three soldiers convicted of raping a 14 year-old-boy.

So What Can Be Done?

This situation is clearly not sustainable, but member states have so far declined to take any fundamental steps to address this underlying challenge of criminal accountability.

One option might be to ban countries from contributing troops to a peacekeeping missions if they do not credibly prosecute the rapists in their midst. But then you run into a profound political — and moral — dilemma. Should the UN ban, say, Pakistan — which is the third largest troop contributing country– then entire missions might crumble and regions return to conflict. And in any case, most of the 7,600 Pakistani blue helmets serve honorably and force generation is already a huge problem for peacekeeping.

The most logical solution would be a UN court designed solely to investigate and prosecute abuses by peacekeepers. This idea has been floated by think tanks and even some official UN reports over the years. For instance, a 2013 report from the United States Institute for Peace recommends “a new special court could be established to exercise jurisdiction over crimes committed within the peacekeeping context if the troop-contributing country is unable or unwilling to investigate or prosecute.” But this idea has so far gained little traction among member states.

In his statement announcing the resignation of the CAR mission chief, Ban Ki Moon said he was holding a conference call tomorrow with all mission chiefs around the world. He also asked the Security Council to hold a special session to discuss the events in CAR and broader questions of peacekeeper accountability. But there is only so much that the Secretary General can do on his own.  Member states need to drive this process. Whether or not the Security Council steps up with solutions to address this accountability gap will ultimately determine whether or not the credible threat of criminal prosecution can deter future crimes.