United Nations Peacekeepers Aiding Sex Traffickers?

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A shocking Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) report recently obtained by the Associated Press revealed that United Nations (U.N.) peacekeepers in Haiti had “transactional sex” with hundreds of poor local women. According to the report, a third of the alleged sexual abuses reported involved individuals younger than 18. OIOS’s in-depth analysis and a history of past U.N. misconduct demonstrate a pressing need to reevaluate current peacekeeping policy.

Earlier this year, reports surfaced that between December 2013 and June 2014 French peacekeeping soldiers made local children in the Central African Republic (CAR) commit sex acts as entertainment. However, this was hardly the first reported incident of sexual misconduct.

In 1999, former U.N. International Police Force monitor Kathryn Bolkovac reported that U.N. officials were involved in the Bosnian sex trafficking industry. “[Bolkovac] discovered numerous individuals in the Bosnian and U.N. police (which was made up of some 1,800 officers from 45 countries) who were not only using trafficked prostitutes but were on the traffickers’ pay-roll,” the Telegraph reported.

A few years prior, a 1994 study authored by former First Lady of Mozambique Graça Machel found that the arrival of peacekeeping troops actually correlated with a “rapid rise” in child prostitution in six out of 12 country studies on sexual exploitation of children in situations of armed conflict.

It is clear that there has been systematic sexual abuse of local women by U.N. peacekeepers for quite some time now. Nevertheless, U.N. peacekeepers rarely get convicted for their atrocities. U.N. personnel are protected by diplomatic immunity, meaning they can’t be prosecuted in their mission country. Compounding the issue is that home governments have little incentive to publicize their troops’ bad behavior.

Some efforts to rectify the situation have already taken place. In response to Bolkovac’s revelations, the U.N. established a conduct and discipline unit in 2007. Susan Malcorra, who heads the unit, told the Telegraph that the U.N. can waive immunity whenever necessary. The U.N. regularly kicks officials off their missions and hands the investigation and punishment over to the member state, she said. On the U.N. Conduct and Discipline Unit’s website, Secretary Ban Ki-moon asserts that the organization is taking this problem seriously, writing:

Let me be clear: the United Nations, and I personally, are profoundly committed to a zero-tolerance policy against sexual exploitation or abuse by our own personnel. This means zero complacency. When we receive credible allegations, we ensure that they are looked into fully. It means zero impunity.

The recent report on abuses in Haiti did not find issue with U.N. policy. Rather, it found issue with “significant underreporting,” characterizing assistance to victims as “severely deficient.” To remedy the situation, the U.N. needs to increase oversight. One option is to require at least one member of the conduct and discipline unit, whose sole job would be to evaluate the conduct of U.N. officials, to be present at each peacekeeping site at all times.

Maintaining integrity is imperative. The unit must screen its employees rigorously to ensure that they are not the same officials who are causing problems and regularly rotate employees to different peacekeeping sites to minimize the possibility of collusion with peacekeepers. Periodic assessments of both peacekeeping officials and conduct and disipline unit employees is a must.

As human rights activist Gita Saghal asserts, “the issue with the U.N. is that peacekeeping operations unfortunately seem to be doing the same thing that other militaries do. Even the guardians have to be guarded.” Perhaps then the organization meant to uphold human rights will stop doing the exact opposite.

Hyunjae Ham
Hyunjae Ham is a member of the University of Maryland Class of 2015 and a Law Street Media Fellow for the Summer of 2015. Contact Hyunjae at



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