The irony and problematic of UN peacekeepers’ roles and responsibilities in war zones is alarming. Having a role to protect civilians, yet the horrors of taking advantage of innocent people and abusing them sexually is shocking – and this not a new phenomenon. Often, the main targets are young girls, teenagers and young women, but also young boys – are being targeted. At the same time, the facts and figures in the reports remain ambiguous about details and numbers, as so many of the victims are afraid and/or embarrassed to report acts of sexual abuse.
Justice is needed
In DRC, there are three categories of authorities who have undertaken certain violations: these are armed men, soldiers protecting children and members of the UN mission also known as the Blue Helmets (Les Casques Bleus).
Since 2004, hundreds of Blue Helmet soldiers have been removed or banned from taking part in future peace missions.
Many argue that it is all because of the UN’s failure to respond properly, which has led to it being an on-going concern. In 2015, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon appointed an independent commission to investigate allegations of sexual abuses by French and African soldiers in CAR (The Central African Republic). This is a welcome development.
Are reports of sexual crimes inflicted by UN Peacekeepers: an issue that is often put aside by responsible authorities today?
On March 12, one of the closing events of The International Film Festival and Forum on Human Rights (FIFDH) based in Geneva (Switzerland) was a film screening of: Le Déshonneur des Casques Bleus, (The dishonour of the blue helmets). This gripping documentary film, directed by Raymonde Provencher describes the dismay of a population whose children had become the prey of international peacekeepers in their locality.
The film treats the subject of sexual violence taking place during war times, which has been acknowledged as a weapon of war used by the warring parties in DRC Congo, and the struggle of UN authorities to admit the serious implications of similar violence perpetrated by UN peacekeepers on thousands of people.
The film screening was followed by a debate with a mixed panel, who discussed what they considered the most pressing needs of understanding and remedying the problems of sexual abuse perpetrated by UN peacekeepers. Amongst those panellists from the UN and other international organisations, I had the pleasure of talking with Paula Donovan, co-director of Aids-Free World, an international advocacy organization that exposes injustice, abuse and inequality. Their global campaign: Code Blue launched in May 2015 aims to reveal, raise awareness and fight against the plight of victims of violence, and a system that continues to go unpunished.
Code Blue: An international awareness campaign
This worldwide campaign is an opportunity to conduct advocacy, and try to make changes starting at the very top. In other words, at the UN HQs. Their aim is to make lasting change to these bad practices, have an influence on the changes; accessing meetings with the UN Secretary-General and UN staff in general – to put a stop to such criminal deeds going unpunished. Member States of the UN need to make serious changes according to Donovan, and thus persuasion is critical, so that peacekeeping missions that are funded by the UN are made liable for their deeds. Making the general public more informed and involved is also important for the changes to come about.
How it all started
The name, according to Donovan: Code Blue comes from a signal used in hospital settings in the USA. Code blue is an announcement during a cardiac arrest, which means that doctors must rush immediately to the scene because a patient might be dying. And, at the same time, the colour blue refers to the UN flag, and was aptly chosen as the name for the campaign that requires an emergency response.
The idea started at a time when a lot of research was being carried out on the HIV aids pandemic, how widespread it quickly became, the causes of HIV and the whole question of discrimination towards those who had the illness. Donovan argued that if there weren’t so many acts of sexual violence against women, HIV as a virus would not have spread so widely, as well as if there wasn’t so much discrimination against LGBT communities worldwide. “Discrimination is institutional, and at that level, it is almost impossible to fight against it”.
Before becoming co-founder of Aids Free World, she worked many years at the UN, realising that sexual violence had to be fought, and couldn’t be ignored any longer. “There is need for an affective UN. It cannot be effective if they are preaching but not practising the same measures”.
According to her, the UN is not doing enough to treat the subject, and it is senseless because “the UN is supposed to find the perpetrators and take action against them”.
Indeed, the problem with sexual violence, used as a weapon of war in several peacekeeping countries, has taken on enormous proportions. It seems to happen everywhere. Troop contributing countries do a better job than others, and soldiers have to follow the rules. In CAR for example, this problem is huge.
The phenomenon is not new as mentioned earlier, and it is being talked about a lot in the media. The only problem according to Donovan is that the subject is “being hushed by the UN not the media”, and abuses are always being exposed to the public by journalists operating in peacekeeping countries.
Why is the subject being silenced by the UN?
“The UN is in a situation where it feels that if the public, plus Member States find out that peacekeepers are not doing their job properly, that may undermine the ability to get funding.”
Most people don’t report sexual violence, as it is not in their best interest. This is why Code Blue aims to get the message across, by calling for the creation of a system-wide, external and independent investigation, with full access to the UN, to examine every facet of sexual exploitation and abuse in peacekeeping operations. But it may take decades to solve this problem. According to Donovan, staff running peacekeeping missions have proven themselves incapable of solving a crisis alone and it may have to be taken into receivership.