Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

‘They Were Going to the Beach, Acting like Tourists, Drinking, Chasing Girls’: A Mixed-Methods Study on Community Perceptions of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse by UN Peacekeepers in Haiti

Originally published by Carla King, Sabine Lee, and Susan A. Bartels in Stability: International Journal of Security and Development, May 21, 2020
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While UN peace support operations (PSO) have proven successful in facilitating long-lasting peace (Fortna 2008Hultman, Kathman, and Shannon 201320142016Quinn, Mason, and Gurses 2007), they have also been tarnished by persistent reports of sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) of vulnerable and innocent civilians (Karim and Beardsley 2016). Since the first reports of the early 1990s, almost all PSO have been associated with sexual misconduct to some degree of magnitude and severity (Lee 2017). Different missions have raised different concerns, and recent academic scholarship has led to some understanding of the factors underlying SEA within the context of peacekeeping economies around bases (Jennings and Bøås 2015Jennings 2015Rodriguez and Kinne 2019) including the economic power differentials between members of the local population and PSO personnel (Bell, Flynn, and Machain 2018).

The UN has long been aware of sexual misconduct allegations. Following the establishment of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) Task Force on Protection from Sexul Exploitation and Abuse in Humanitarian Crises, the Secretary General of the UN, in October 2003, published the bulletin ‘Special Measures for Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse,’ which detailed what has since become known as the ‘zero-tolerance policy’ (United Nations Secretariat 2003). While this bulletin defined and prohibited SEA, a more pronounced change in attitude and policy occurred in the wake of the so-called ‘Zeid report,’ commissioned by the UN Secretary-General to provide a ‘Comprehensive Strategy to Eliminate Future Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in United Nations Peacekeeping Operations’ (Prince Hussein Zeid 2005). In December 2007, the UN General Assembly adopted two resolutions: one on criminal accountability (Resolution 62/63) (UN General Assembly 2007b) and one on victim support (Resolution 62/214), the ‘Comprehensive Strategy on Assistance and Support to Victims of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse by United Nations Personnel and Related Personnel’ (UN General Assembly 2007a). The survivor-centred, rights-based approach was further underscored with the 2017 appointment of the first Victims’ Rights Advocate in an attempt to ‘elevate the voice of the victims’ and to ‘put their rights and dignity at the forefront’ of the UN efforts (UN 2017a). Thus, while the UN has arguably done more than most national or international organizations to put SEA survivors at the core of SEA mitigation measures, it is the dichotomy between the apparent desire on the part of the UN to address SEA perpetrated by PSO personnel on the one hand (Women’s International League for Peace & Freedom n.d.), and the evident failure to achieve meaningful justice for survivors on the other hand, that has been critiqued widely and is evident, too, in the case of Haiti (Joseph and Wisner 2019Freedman 2018).

Gender and PSO

The gendered nature of PSO has long been recognised (Smith and Skjelsbaek 2001Stiehm 2001Carey 2001Mazurana, Raven-Roberts, and Parpart 2005). Since the landmark UN Security Council Resolution 1325 in October 2000, the UN has started gender-mainstreaming its mandates, albeit selectively, through the Inter-agency Taskforce on Women, Peace and Security (established by the Inter-Agency Network on Women and Gender Equality [IANWGE]) and subsequent Security Council resolutions (Kreft 2017). Concurrently, scholarship, particularly feminist scholarship, has engaged critically with gendered aspects of conflict and PSO, building theoretical frameworks for the study of military masculinities (Kronsell 2012Chinkin, Kaldor, and Yadav 2020Duncanson 2015Chisholm and Tidy 2017Henry 2017Henry 2019) and evaluating PSO policies and practice (Pruitt 2016Higate 2007Kronsell and Svedberg 2011Jennings 2019). While the gendered culture in PSO is no longer controversial (Carreiras 2010), the improved understanding of gendered determinants and outcomes for both the host country and the troop and police contributing countries (TPCC) has, by and large, not been translated into greater effectiveness (Karim 2017). Peacekeepers’ discursive construction of the local context within which they operate and specifically of the local female population has compromised the ability to fulfil the mandate to protect (Jennings 2019). While we are theorising about gender (Shepherd 2010), there is still little room for gender when theorizing inequalities as a barrier to peace (Shepherd 2017). In the tradition of feminist scholarship, our research moves away from the ‘colonial model of seeing men and not hearing women’ (Heathcote 2014: 62), by seeking to understand the experiences of Haitian women living in a UN host community.

Throughout its 13-year history, the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), historically one of the most controversial PSO, was marred by allegations of wrongdoings, both by peacekeepers themselves and the institutions monitoring their practices. For instance, MINUSTAH personnel (uniformed and non-uniformed) have been linked to a variety of human rights abuses, including sexual exploitation and rape (Yearman 2007), as well as offering minors food and small amounts of cash in exchange for sex (BBC News 2006Kolbe 2015). Often, reports were not investigated thoroughly, and even where allegations were substantiated, little action was taken to deliver justice for victims. Arguably, the most prominent example was the 114 Sri Lankan peacekeepers who were repatriated but never even charged following allegations of a sex ring involving Haitian children (Snyder 2017). This culture of impunity exists in part because UN personnel enjoy functional immunity in the host country, i.e., immunity from prosecution for crimes committed while on duty. Although peacekeepers do not enjoy full immunity, i.e., immunity from prosecution for crimes committed off duty, the UN has generously interpreted the PSO ‘line of duty’ and also determined that only TPCC can prosecute military members of the mission (UN General Assembly 2011). Thus, uniformed peacekeepers are not subject to the host country’s jurisdiction, and victims have little access to justice in their home countries. For their part, few TPCC have been willing to investigate allegations, and the UN has little, if any, power to force TPCC to comply with delivering justice for alleged victims (UN Human Rights Council 2008Boon 2016Republic of Haiti 2016).

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