When, questioned several UN investigators, why was it necessary for them to travel all the way from New York to report something so obvious? Wasn’t anyone paying attention to the pre-deployment training, to the code of conduct distributed to every mission employee and posted on all in-country MINUSTAH bulletin boards: “It is strictly prohibited for ALL MINUSTAH Personnel to engage in any act of sexual exploitation, sexual abuse or other forms of humiliating, degrading or exploitative behavior, including sexual activity with children, use of children or adults to procure sexual services for others, exchange of money, employment, goods or services for sex, exchange of assistance that is due to beneficiaries, for sex.”
Transactional sex with peacekeepers isn’t new, nor is sexual exploitation and abuse – S.E.A., in UN jargon. The first widespread exposure of the practice, including exploitation of children, pornography, trafficking and sexual assault, occurred in the early 1990s. Then there was the sex-trafficking in Bosnia, Herzegovina and Kosovo, popularized with the 2010 release of the feature film The Whistleblower, adapted from the book by a US former police officer, Kathryn Bolkovac. In 1999, Bolkovac was employed as a peacekeeper in post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina where she exposed the ring.
MINUSTAH, composed of 8,896 unified personnel from 55 countries, including police and civilian, makes up only seven percent of UN peacekeepers worldwide, but accounts for 26 percent of the allegations of sexual assault and exploitation since 2013. Together, missions in just four countries—Haiti, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia and South Sudan—account for 85% of all cases of sexual assault and exploitation, and have for the last three consecutive years. It’s hard to ignore the racial element here.
“It is impossible to explain anything about the relationship between Haiti and the US or the rest of the world without relying heavily on racism,” said Brian Concannon Jr., executive director of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti. “I expect you could add D.R.C., Liberia and South Sudan to that.” Other human rights experts agree, citing other contributing factors, including but not limited to poverty. While allegations continue to drop throughout missions around the world, in MINUSTAH they have been growing – 20 percent since 2011.
To put this in perspective, it is estimated that less than 30 percent of sexual abuse cases in the United States are reported. Imagine the percentage when the alleged perpetrator is in uniform and packs a weapon. An independent mission team of experts that visited the four worst offending missions noted, in a November 2013 report, that sexual abuse and exploitation is the most significant risk to peacekeeping missions, adding that “official numbers mask what appears to be significant amounts of under-reporting.”
Under-reporting, or lack of reporting altogether, is being exploited by all parties. Many of the victims live in the dire conditions typical of countries or areas where missions are frequently deployed: poor, politically unstable, desperate, where potable water at home is a luxury, where schools – a long trek by foot – lack such basics as desks; and the most minimal of health services can be hours away. Haiti, Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo rank 161, 174 and 186, respectively, out of 187 countries on the Human Development Index, a composite of life expectancy, education, and income indices that the UN uses to measure development. In Haiti, which for decades has dragged the tagline poorest-country-in-the-western-hemisphere, more than 80 percent of its people live below the poverty line. Life expectancy is 62.1 years, a full ten years less than that of the Dominican Republic, with whom it shares the island of Hispaniola. The average citizen has less than five years of education.
Sexual exploitation and abuse are frequently guised as contractual sex. Victims tend to keep quiet. Speaking up can mean the difference between survival and starvation. The exchange – money or goods – helps feed their families, so servicing eight, nine, ten soldiers a day, as was revealed during the investigation of the Sri Lankan peacekeepers, can provide crucial income. And not exclusive to Sri Lanka, the cultural norms surrounding women and gender issues differ widely from country to country – that perception can influence how countries perceive and respond to sexual abuse and exploitation.
Negotiating a price to silence victims can benefit everyone involved. A UN study of sexual abuse and exploitation in Haiti and elsewhere noted that “…[r]eporting brings losses to all parties with no compensation package for complainants and loss of job security for mission staff.” Local organizations fear calling attention to the abuse because it brings shame to the families. UN whistleblowers are seen as a threat and become targets for retaliation. They also worry about losing their jobs.