The devastating irony of calling UN troops 'peacekeepers'

The world can look the other way because of the strength of the good guy narrative, writes Ruby Hamad.

The world can look the other way because of the strength of the good guy narrative, writes Ruby Hamad. Photo: Thomas Trutschel

Peacekeepers. The term conjures up images of the proverbial 'good guys' selflessly guarding vulnerable populations. So proud is the UN of its Blue Helmets, as they are also known, that May 29 is International Day of United Nations Peacekeepers.

But this year activists are demanding something a little different in terms of celebrations: accountability and prosecutions for the hundreds of UN troops who have committed sexual assaults. So prevalent are these abuses they have spawned the hashtag #PredatoryPeacekeepers.

In March, the UN was rocked by revelations that, along with French troops, its peacekeepers stationed in the Central African Republic (CAR) had sexually abused dozens of local girls.

According to a report by the AIDS-Free World's Code Blue Campaign, at least 98 girls were targeted, with four reportedly forced to perform sex acts with a dog by a French Commander. In a separate incident, a mother accused a Congolese UN peacekeeper of raping her 16-year-old daughter in a hotel room.

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But CAR is only the tip of the iceberg. At least 480 allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse took place between 2008 and 2013. One third of these were against children.

Last year alone, a report published by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reported 99 allegations in 21 different countries, including Haiti, Morocco, and South Africa. These include raping children as young as 13, forcing child refugees to perform sexual favours in return for food, and running a prostitution ring where girls and boys were sold for as little as 50 cents.

What's more, these abuses go back decades. In the 1991-92 UN mission in Cambodia, countless accusations swirled of sexual harassment and abuse by the Blue Helmets. In 2003, UN troops sent to Liberia were found to be frequently "having sex" with girls as young as 12. And, also in the early 2000s, they were alleged to have helped run brothels, trafficking women from Eastern Europe.

As far back as 2005, the UN had identified repeated patterns of assault by its peacekeeping troops. And although the report stressed the perpetrators "must be punished," there has not, to date, been a single prosecution.

Rather than protect, many of the Blue Helmets have used their positions to inflict further trauma on vulnerable populations. If they have known about this since at least 2005, why has the UN being so slow to respond, and why has international reaction been so muted?

Maya Goodfellow, from Media Diversified, asks whether this indifference would exist if the abuses had taken place in western countries:

"(The) problem isn't a couple of bad apples; it's the whole system. Missions are imagined in a way that lets peacekeepers get away with what they want. The narrative is this: people living in these "war torn" societies don't have the same moral values as the troops who come, often but not always from Western countries, to protect them. As the Blue Helmets head off on their expeditions, they're applauded for bravely choosing to bring decency into a country where citizens are too barbaric to look after themselves. It's this good vs. bad narrative that clears the way for violence."

In other words, it is their very vulnerability that makes these populations a target for the troops sent to protect them. Women and girls of colour, especially those in poor, conflict-riddled countries, are implicitly regarded as so expendable, decades of sexual abuse at the hands of those who are meant to keep them safe can be swept under the carpet.

And the world can look the other way because of the strength of the good guy narrative. Humans are nothing if not adept at ignoring mountains of evidence in favour of clinging to cherished myths. For evidence, look no further than the conniptions had in certain quarters at the prospect we refer to Australia having been "invaded" rather than "settled."

This is the power language has to guide our perception of the world; we forget that language is a tool used to shape reality, rather than reality itself. Peacekeepers are civilising forces. We "know" this because of their name, a name that signals their ethical conduct - they bring law and order to the unruly and often undeserving masses. Evidence to the contrary is easily discarded because the prevailing myth is so strong. And before you know it, they have been getting away with sexually abusing women and children across the world for decades.

For its part, the UN finally responded in March, with the Security Council adopting Resolution 2272, endorsing a proposal to return home the peacekeeping contingent of a country whose peacekeepers sexually abuse locals.

This is not good enough. Firstly, a resolution is not legally binding. Secondly, it says nothing of prosecutions; only repatriation. Finally, it allows the UN itself to oversee the process, rather than an independent board. This has led Code Blue to derisively refer to it as, "the fox guarding the hen house."

Most importantly, it fails to get to the core of the problem: the myth that so-called good guys are incapable of heinous actions. The good guy/bad guy dichotomy needs to be dismantled before we can even think about putting a stop to crimes such as these.

When those literally employed to "keep the peace" are running illegal brothels, raping with impunity, and forcing children to perform sex acts with dogs, then the term has lost all legitimate meaning.

And, as critics wonder whether Resolution 2272 is anything more than a desperate attempt by the UN to repair its tarnished reputation, I am again reminded of the words of author Jennifer Clement at this year's All About Women festival. These types of egregious abuses will continue to happen, she warned, "until the lives of women and girls matter more."