Sexual Assault & the U.N. (AGAIN)

According to the AP, sexual assault and exploitation allegations against United Nations peacekeepers in the Congo are gaining focus again. To date, 72 allegations against military and civilian U.N. personnel have been filed. Most of the cases involve underage girls and many center on the coercion of Congolese women to engage in sex in exchange for food or small sums of money.
The U.N. attempted to crack down on the problem by emphasizing to its personnel that sex with individuals under age eighteen will be viewed as a conduct violation. *BUT* as several watchdog organizations have pointed out–this clearly isn’t working.
William Lacy Swing, the United Nations’ special representative to Congo, explained that: “We have had and continue to have a serious problem of sexual exploitation and abuse. We are shocked by it, we are outraged, we are sickened by it. Peacekeepers who have been sworn to assist those in need, particularly those who have been victims of sexual violence, instead have caused grievous harm.”
But how to address the problem? Everyone seems *very* short on ideas.
Jean-Marie Guehenno, U.N. undersecretary-general for peacekeeping operations, noted simply that, “Rules and regulations should be tightened.” Ummmmm, yeah, I would say so. The AP explains that, “Officials have found it difficult to crack down because the United Nations doesn’t want to offend the relatively small number of countries that are willing to provide peacekeepers.” As a result, local women are left to bear the brunt of this fear of offense.
An *awesome* resource on this issue is Peace Women, which compiles information on investigations of sexual assault within U.N. missions.
I think what I’m struck by is how this discussion continues to exist in a vacuum. For example, there is no juxtaposition between the problem of sexual assault on UN peacekeeping missions with the same ongoing problem in US military campaigns. And no one is talking about how this issue has been informed by growing “American” (i.e. the red staters) distrust of the United Nations. Would this even be an issue if it wasn’t en vogue to talk shit about the UN? (sigh).

Join the Conversation

  • brendan

    Having worked as a journalist covering reconstruction efforts in Sierra Leone (where a major UN peacekeeping operation is wrapping up), I think there is a pink elephant in the room that nobody is talking about:
    The fact is that a lot of middle age men sign up for these missions, explicitly because of the opportunity to engage in sexual behavior that is very problematic.
    I have witnessed so many white male 50-somethings with 17 year old girlfriends, and it is seriously disturbing, especially given the insane power disequilibrium within these relationships.
    This is why they need to have a rule clarifying that employees must follow the fucking law (it seems sort of absurd to have a rule clarifying that you can’t commit statutory rape)… When a culture exists that apologizes for these types of arrangements, it invariably contributes to a climate where other arrangements and criminal behavior are overlooked.

  • Mark

    Just out of curiosity, which do you think is worse — Abu Ghraib, or the UN sexcapades?

  • Sally

    My answer to that is the same as Amnesty International’s: I don’t rank human rights violations. They’re both awful and unacceptable. Any decent person would be horrified by both. The only reason to claim one was worse than the other, as far as I can see, would be to use other people’s suffering to score political points.
    Just out of curiosity, why do you ask?

  • Mark

    Amnesty doesn’t rank human rights violations? Surely you’re not saying they don’t choose to spend their resources fighting or highlighting some abuses, and not others? In that sense, they must rank violations. I gave a once-over to their website, and I didn’t see one mention of the UN’s “serious problem of sexual exploitation and abuse.”
    I’m asking because I think both outrageous, but I certainly think that sexual abuse by the UN over those they are supposed to be helping is much worse than the Abu Ghraib situation. And if I am correct in that belief, then the amount of attention paid to Abu Ghraib should have been less than the amount of attention paid to this story. Clearly, that is not the case.