The paradox of the peacekeeper and perpetrator is one that blights the hugely positive impact of the global humanitarian efforts undertaken by UN personnel and humanitarian agencies in conflict and post-conflict settings. The sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) of children living in some of the most challenging environments, by those entrusted as peacekeepers, is a reality faced by many. Children in these contexts are often vulnerable to rape and sexual violence, with some experiencing the denial of food, water, clothing and medicine for the purposes of sexual exploitation, by those entrusted with the provision of such aid. Whilst the vast majority of peacekeepers and aid workers do not engage in such misconduct, a minority do. It was the actions of this minority that was addressed by the panel of experts at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on 6th November 2017 in their discussion: Peacekeeper or Perpetrator? Safeguarding children from sexual abuse.
The panel included a number of experts including the inaugural Victims Advocate for the UN, Jane Connors; Professor of Law, Conflict and Global Development and Director of the Global Development Division at the University of Reading, Rosa Freedman; and Director of Keeping Children Safe, Sarah Blakemore, amongst others.
A key theme throughout the panel discussion was the primary importance of adopting a victim centred approach when addressing this conduct. Whilst the complexities of the legal frameworks and jurisdictions was emphasised by Freedman, the centrality of victims within these frameworks is paramount. Further complexities arise in light of the multiple actors that are often involved in conflict and post-conflict settings. Freedman stressed the need to consider the problem in a wider context than that of UN peacekeepers. An overly UN-centred focus is unable to fully address the SEA of children.
Blakemore suggested that that the involvement of multiple agencies and governments operating within the field can give rise to a power imbalance which isn’t unique to the UN peacekeeper and child relationship. A holistic consideration of the wider network of humanitarian agencies, and other forms of civilian UN and governmental staff is required. The power imbalance which engenders the opportunities for exploitation and abuse should be kept in mind, whilst maintaining the centrality of victims and survivors.
Freedman and Blakemore discussed their fieldwork in Liberia, undertaken to identify the best practices of peacekeepers and civil society in tackling the SEA of children. Keeping Children Safe had previously created a Toolkit of International Standards, addressing policies, people, procedures for safeguarding, and accountability. An important driver in creating this toolkit was the need to engender a culture of accountability, and to understand the risks that children face. Keeping Children Safe researched SEA within Liberia after the toolkit had been adopted, and documented its reduction in recent years.
The best practices that were taken to reduce SEA in Liberia were identified by Blakemore as the following:
- Formalised risk assessments.
- Transparent reporting mechanisms that included visibility of the UN’s Secretary-Generals zero tolerance policy on SEA. This process was most effective when it could be tracked, and survivors were updated on the progress of the report through to potential disciplinary action.
- Vetting during the recruitment process. The lack of birth registration continues to be a challenge within this context.
- Training of personnel, particularly specific training on child safeguarding.
- Clear codes of conduct, including policies on personal boundaries. In Liberia, UN staff wore badges promoting the Secretary-General’s Zero Tolerance of SEA policy.
- Clarity in signposting where reporting should be made.
- Social outreach. This involved public communications aimed on promoting SEA prevention. In Liberia such outreach occurred by way of radio and newsletters.
Blakemore was pleased to report the progress that was made in Liberia. This positive message was made clear by the photography exhibition that was on display during the panel discussion. Images of child appropriate posters and UN staff displaying the zero tolerance badges dotted the room, allowing the audience to appreciate from a visual perspective the positive steps made to tackle such an abhorrent issue. Whilst Blakemore stressed that continuing challenges remain, such as the timely addressing of reports, the hopeful case study of Liberia demonstrates the achievements that can be made when those in leadership roles are willing to spearhead a top down strategy.
Connors spoke on the progress made within the UN system itself, pointing to the paramount importance of obtaining the political will of member states. In her role as Victims Rights Advocate, she has seen the product of anti-SEA efforts within the UN. This included the establishment of a special advisory board, the creation of a formalised victims assistant procedure, an incident reporting form aimed at reducing the number of interviews victims are subjected to, which was first piloted in the DRC, a circle of leadership consisting of 57 member states, a voluntary anti-SEA compact agreed upon by 71 member states, and the creation of a ‘no excuses’ card carried by UN personnel.
As Victims Advocate, Connors ensured that victims and survivors were at the centre of her discussion, stressing that the aim of her role is to amplify the voices of victims. In discussion of her first field trip to CAR, Connors reflected on her experiences working with survivors of SEA, all of whom were aged 13-16 years when they were subjected to abuse. The priorities that survivors may have in overcoming their ordeals may not always align with our expectations, with women that she spoke with placing their focus, less on issues of accountability, and more so on developing their own lives and moving forward. This reminds us of the importance of not substituting the judgment of victims with the judgment of experts, which Connor stated is a continuing problem. Hence, victims must be heard, and victims must be informed, when any process or procedure is ongoing, of any updates or outcomes.
Timothy Brown spoke from the perspective of a UN Peacekeeper from the UK armed forces, whose role includes that of Gender and Child Protection Advisor. Brown sought to address the patterns that arose across many instances of SEA, identifying commonalities between perpetrators. An important factor in cases was often battle fatigue, including the lack of medication such as malaria tablets. What is important in countering this, Brown explained, was first, stressing that children are first and foremost children, even in dangerous situations, where the use of child soldiers may occur. Second, the engagement of command authority. Finally, the reinforcement of the sole standard of conduct expected from UN personnel. Regardless of the background of the peacekeeper, there is one culture within UN peacekeeping operations. As Gender and Child Protection Advisor Brown had taken steps to strengthen anti-SEA efforts within peacekeeping forces by way of enacting a central policy, enhancing education, particularly in relation to child soldiers and moral expectations, and organising a conference specifically on SEA. For Brown, moving forward and furthering efforts requires greater gender mainstreaming within troops, by having more women within military operations. Further, greater civilian support is required, as the ‘military cannot mark it’s own homework.’
This event, organised by Rosa Freedman and the University of Reading, with the support of the ESRC, the AHRC, and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, demonstrated the wealth of expertise and effort that is currently at play in tackling such inexcusable violence towards some of the world’s most vulnerable children. Whilst this reality may reveal a dark side to what is intended to be humanitarian action, the research and the implementation of solution finding policies and procedures gives us great hope for the future of peacekeeping. Throughout the panel discussion, gratitude and recognition was paid to the overwhelming majority of individuals working within the field as part of UN peacekeeping and NGO humanitarian agencies who uphold the rule of law, and seek to do good in incredibly challenging circumstances. The progress made in Liberia, through implementing Keeping Children Safe’s International Standards Toolkit, is something that is hoped to be replicated in other conflict and post-conflict settings.
All speakers at the event ensured that this was a valuable and truly insightful discussion, which I felt very lucky to have been able to attend. So a big thank from me for hosting a brilliant showcase of such inspirational research to everyone involved. The University of Reading’s GSRN will be keeping a close eye on the work that follows on from this event, so if this is something that you would like to know more about, please do get in touch! You can also find out more about Keeping Children Safe at the following link: https://www.keepingchildrensafe.org.uk/
From one half of your GSRN Coordinator,