Signs of Progress in Improving UN Peacekeeper Accountability

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By Katherine N. Andrews – Distressing accounts of sexual abuse committed by peacekeepers have cast a shadow over the UN’s credibility, but the organization deserves credit for demonstrating a real commitment to stopping such offenses.

The United Nations has in recent years taken meaningful steps towards improving conduct and discipline throughout peacekeeping missions. In addition to implementing promising procedural and policy reforms, the UN has also figured out a way to better hold nations accountable for the misbehavior of troops they contribute to missions.

The latter step aims to address the moral hazard lying at the heart of the problem. Similar to military forces serving in Iraq and elsewhere, peacekeeping troops typically are insulated from risk of local penalties for their actions at the same time that they operate close to vulnerable civilian populations. Neither the UN nor a mission host state can take any legal action against peacekeeping troops because all nations, the US included, insist on retaining disciplinary jurisdiction over their military forces no matter where they happen to be. UN officials’ sole recourse against miscreant blue helmets, therefore, is to send them home, where they too seldom undergo further disciplinary proceedings. The UN shoulders the blame for troops’ bad behavior, but it is contributors that most often shirk their punitive responsibilities.

The UN is now trying to change that. The organization is overhauling the model Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), the template for the agreement it signs with each troop-contributing country to define the terms of personnel deployment. The MOU is the UN’s chief tool for holding contributors accountable for their peacekeepers’ behavior. To sharpen that tool, the UN is revising the MOU to lay out unequivocally the obligations of states regarding the conduct and discipline of their troops.

The changes to the MOU sound a tough tone from the UN. After taking a damaging hit from the indecent behavior of some member states’ troops, the UN’s revisions to the MOU intend to make states meet their responsibility to rein in misconduct. In signing the amended memorandum, a government would acknowledge that its peacekeeping troop commanders are “responsible for the discipline and good order of all members the contingent.” UN performance evaluations for commanders will include assessment of how well they uphold that responsibility.

According to the new language, maintaining “discipline and good order” would explicitly mean following UN conduct standards. This addresses the problem that a military contingent’s rules of conduct do not always mirror UN rules. The new MOU clarifies a troop commander’s responsibility, for instance, to prevent subordinates from soliciting teenaged prostitutes—whether or not his military prohibits it. Ignorance of UN rules will be no excuse. Governments signing the new MOU would give assurance that each troop sent has received “adequate and effective” pre-deployment training on UN standards. The amended MOU also has 17 new paragraphs laying out government obligations regarding exercise of jurisdiction, investigations, and accountability.

The UN also has come up with new language for its conduct standards. Mission staff are now specifically required to report any act involving sexual exploitation and abuse. There are injunctions against sexual relations with anyone under age 18 or in exchange for food, money, employment or any goods or services. The updated standards are appended to the new model MOU, along with precise definitions of key terms like “misconduct” and “sexual exploitation.”

The new MOU is not a complete fix. Enforcement will be tricky. The UN has struggled to line up enough troop contributors to meet the growing demand for peacekeepers. It could prove difficult to reject or send home troops on the basis of a country’s failure to comply with the MOU.

Stemming instances of peacekeeper misconduct is also about more than just changing troops’ behavior. Populations where missions deploy will be vulnerable to abuse and exploitation until they have reasonable options for sustainable livelihoods. The relative wealth of peacekeepers, even from other developing countries, is so strong a lure in some places that groups of women follow the movement of peacekeeping contingents looking to profit from selling their bodies. Those desperate for survival are more likely to take desperate measures.

Clearly, resolving the underlying causes of peacekeeper misconduct is complex and will take time. It is thus encouraging that the UN has worked on other accountability mechanisms as well. In 2004, Secretary-General Kofi Annan commissioned Jordan’s Prince Zeid, a former peacekeeper, to produce a comprehensive report on possible remedies to existing problems. Consequent reforms included efforts to reduce unsupervised troop contact with civilians, improve conduct-related training, and strengthen UN capacity for processing and investigating misconduct allegations. The UN is also proposing a convention requiring member states to exercise jurisdiction over any of their nationals alleged to have committed a crime. 

Such reforms have helped the UN to crack down on misconduct. In July, an entire Moroccan troop contingent in the UN mission to Côte d’Ivoire was suspended for discipline reasons and confined to barracks. The mission to the Democratic Republic of Congo sent home a police contingent for conduct violations. The UN also has gotten better at preventing those sent home for bad behavior from showing up again elsewhere in the UN system.

Good conduct and discipline is mission-critical for peacekeepers. They deploy for the chief purpose of generating peace and bettering people’s lives, and any erosion of one population’s trust in peacekeepers undercuts the UN’s ability to meet that goal among all populations. UN efforts to whittle down the small number of misconduct cases still further will thus strengthen the peacekeeping venture as a whole. Formidable challenges remain, but ongoing reforms sow hope for continued progress and indicate a willingness from UN leaders to persist in finding solutions.


Photo: Special Representative of the Secretary General William Swing addressing staff of the UN mission to the Democratic Republic of the Congo on issues of sexual exploitation and  abuse. MONUC Photo/Kevin Jordan, 17 Dec. 2004
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