International Order & Conflict

Reducing Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in African Union Peacekeeping

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One month ago, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report that accused internationally-funded African Union peacekeepers in Somalia of raping women and girls as young as 12 and trading food and medicine for sex. Unlike the U.N., which only created an accountability framework after a series of similar high-profile incidents severely damaged the image and credibility of U.N. peacekeeping, the African Union has the opportunity to learn from the U.N. and quickly develop strong investigative and complaint mechanisms at the outset of the controversy.  

The HRW report, The Power These Men Have Over Us:’ Sexual Exploitation and Abuse by African Union Forces in Somalia, documented cases of sexual exploitation and abuse of displaced women and girls. Most of the incidents allegedly took place on African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM) bases in Mogadishu, where women and girls gather to receive medical care and food aid.

The post-conflict settings in which peacekeeping missions operate suffer from collapsed economies, weak or non-existent justice systems, and ineffective law enforcement. In this war-ravaged environment, where significant power differentials exist between peacekeepers and the local population, the vulnerability of women and girls is especially severe. Unequal power dynamics lead to increased rates of rape and violence and instances where sex is exchanged for food, medicine, or money.

In light of these allegations, the African Union finds itself in a similar situation as the U.N. over a decade ago. Sexual exploitation and abuse in U.N. peacekeeping became public in the 1990s and it was not until 2003 that the Secretary-General’s Bulletin clearly articulated a zero-tolerance policy. There was little if any compliance with the policy until allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse by U.N. peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo made international headlines in 2004. Over the last 10 years, the U.N. has been working to strengthen prevention, enforcement, and remedial measures.

The U.N.’s first step was to establish an entirely new Conduct and Discipline Unit (CDU) at U.N. headquarters. The CDU provides overall direction for field mission conduct and discipline by formulating policies, training and outreach activities, and tracking allegations of misconduct. Over the years, the U.N. has recognized that actions taken within mission can reduce instances of sexual exploitation and abuse. Through the CDU, the U.N. has stepped up its training efforts, worked to improve peacekeeper morale and welfare, and developed protocols for assistance and support to victims. Peacekeeping commanders have also instituted curfews, lists of off-limit establishments, off-duty uniforms, and abuse reporting telephone hotlines.

Although U.N. peacekeepers who commit sexual exploitation and abuse do not have the absolute impunity they had a decade earlier, difficulties remain. Because of the nature of peacekeeping, the African Union will likely face the same challenges as the U.N. Both the U.N. and the African Union will continue to encounter victim reluctance to report, especially where a victim faces stigmatization and ostracism from her community. Both organizations will also have to deal with issues of troop-contributing country immunity. Peacekeepers have absolute immunity within host countries and troop-contributing countries have exclusive jurisdiction over any crimes they commit. Both the African Union and the U.N. have nothing more than administrative jurisdiction over all categories of personnel. 

The U.N. has taken steps to address these issues in U.N. peacekeeping, and the African Union is following suit in Somalia. The U.N. is confronting these challenges by instituting community outreach campaigns to increase reporting awareness. For example, the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Liberia recently partnered with religious leaders and community radio to conduct talk shows discussing how and where to report sexual exploitation and abuse involving U.N. personnel. The U.N. has also revised memorandums of understanding with troop-contributing countries to lay out investigation and reporting obligations regarding troop conduct and discipline. 

According to Mumbi Mathangani, the African Union Commission’s Senior Conduct and Discipline Advisor, “there are many parallels between the African Union and the U.N.” Mathangani says the African Union’s “aim is to really draw from the U.N. how they deal with conduct and discipline issues and find out what will work in [the African Union] context.”

With African Union peacekeeping operations increasing across Africa, there must be a focus on putting in place effective mechanisms to address sexual exploitation and abuse. In the wake of the HRW report, AMISOM is taking steps to augment their existing personnel and procedures. The African Union has committed to appointing Conduct and Disciplinary Officers on the ground and is working to design a more robust reporting mechanism and increase community outreach activities.

The African Union has the advantage of being able to draw from the U.N.’s experiences over the last decade. Both organizations should work together to reduce instances of this flagrant misconduct. In addition to increasing the suffering of already vulnerable women, peacekeeper sexual exploitation and abuse damages the image and the credibility of AMISOM, as well as the African Union’s credibility in the eyes of the local population and stakeholders around the world. The African Union is moving in the right direction, but it will take time and commitment to put the right policies in place to make a difference on the ground.  

Photo credit: United Nations Photo via flickr

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