Among the heartbreaking headlines this week was the news that UN peacekeepers barter goods that meet basic needs, including food and medicine, in exchange for sex with the populations they’re meant to serve.
In a new report from the UN’s Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS), hundreds of women in Haiti and Liberia have disclosed that peacekeeping troops have been engaging in “transactional sex”—an issue that has now spanned more than a decade among UN peacekeepers. According to the report, rural women cited hunger, lack of shelter, baby care items, medication, and household items as the “triggering need.”
These impoverished women and children of some of the world’s most vulnerable populations were exploited by the very people who were sent there to help.
In addition to the accounts of transactional sex, the report also revealed that about a third of the alleged sexual abuse involved minors under the age of 18. To add insult to injury, the assistance that recognized victims receive is dismal—the average investigation by OIOS, which says it prioritizes cases involving minors or rape, takes more than a year.
While the report is shocking, the tragic reality is that this is what vulnerable populations have had to face for years in order to provide for themselves and their families, in spite of the UN peacekeepers’ mission to resolve conflict and maintain international peace.
In 2003, the UN banned peacekeepers from engaging in transactional sex, where sex is exchanged for money or anything of value. While the UN prohibits the exchange of money, employment, goods, or services for sex, they have less stringent policies regarding personal sexual relationships between peacekeepers and the civilians they serve. The 2003 bulletin says: “Sexual relationships between United Nations staff and beneficiaries of assistance, since they are based on inherently unequal power dynamics, undermine the credibility and integrity of the work of the United Nations and are strongly discouraged.” Many of the peacekeepers believe that their right to sex should not be questioned.
Most women involved in the exploitation were unaware of the UN’s policy prohibiting sexual exploitation and the existence of a hotline to report such activity. The UN has acknowledged that there are probably far more victims that have been recorded. They’ve responded by calling for an overhaul of peacekeeping operations, with suggested solutions including faster deployment of peacekeepers and the naming of countries whose troops commit acts of sexual abuse, as well as punishment for any countries involved.
It’s incredibly difficult to find a sense of relief in the UN’s response.
This revolting problem was identified over a decade ago. For ten years we’ve heard story after story of vulnerable people being sexually exploited by those who should be giving desperately needed help.
On paper, it would appear as though the rules are set in place for exploitation to be prevented—after all, it’s explicitly stated that the exchange of goods for sex is prohibited. But justice isn’t achieved merely when the rule is written in ink on the right document. Justice is achieved when men, women, and children live with the protection they deserve. The UN’s decision to have an internal office that provides an analysis and oversight of behaviors of the thousands of UN peacekeepers around the world is important—but we must not stop at just providing a report or adding in new rules in writing.
We must not forget that behind the report are real people, and these families deserve peacekeepers who personally embrace denouncing exploitation rather than to simply signing off on it on white paper.
Additional articles for delving into the topic:
Report: U.N. peacekeepers in Haiti had ‘transactional sex’ with hundreds of poor women – Washington Post
UN peacekeepers ‘barter goods for sex’ – BBC
U.N. peacekeeping and transactional sex – Washington Post
UN peacekeeper changes, penalties recommended after sexual abuse claims – Associated Press