International Order & Conflict

Reducing Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in UN Peacekeeping

in Program

United Nations peacekeepers help people living in the most volatile regions of the world emerge from conflict in the hope of a better future. Despite the important role peacekeeping missions play in restoring peace and security to fragile nations, there have been instances of peacekeepers taking advantage of the people they were sent to protect. Some peacekeepers exploit these situations to commit rape and other forms of sexual exploitation and abuse. A new policy brief by the Stimson Center — Reducing Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in UN Peacekeeping: Ten Years After the Zeid Report — recommends ways the U.N. can build on these programs and protocols and suggests a direction for future U.N. policy.

After numerous allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse committed by U.N. peacekeepers made international headlines, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan commissioned a comprehensive report on sexual exploitation and abuse in U.N. peacekeeping missions. The resulting report, known as the “Zeid Report,” was released in March 2005, and recommended implementation of a comprehensive strategy to eradicate sexual exploitation and abuse by U.N. peacekeeping personnel.  The report’s recommendations included propagation of U.N. standards of conduct, reforming the investigative process, strengthening organizational, managerial, and command responsibility, and instituting individual disciplinary, financial, and criminal accountability.

In the decade since the Zeid report was released, the U.N. has continually reexamined policies and learned from best practices. An entirely new Conduct and Discipline Unit was established at U.N. headquarters, which provides overall direction for field missions by formulating policies, training, and outreach activities and tracking allegations of misconduct. Additionally, training, investigative, and victim assistance procedures have been developed through a “three-pronged” strategy of prevention, enforcement, and remedial action.

Even with the implementation of stronger sexual exploitation and abuse policies and procedures, holding perpetrators accountable remains a challenge. Peacekeeping missions operate in a complex working environment; peacekeepers are dispersed across the globe, speak different languages, and have different relationships with the U.N. depending on their classification. Further, victims may be reluctant to report sexual exploitation and abuse, as many face stigmatization and ostracism from their families and communities.

Although there are challenges to implementing effective sexual exploitation and abuse policies, new conduct and discipline expertise as well as an increase of resources to reduce sexual exploitation and abuse may be having an impact on the ground. There has been an overall downward trend of sexual exploitation and abuse incidents over the last 10 years, even though the number of total personnel serving in peacekeeping operations has increased by around 50 percent.

Nevertheless, as long as instances of sexual exploitation and abuse continue to occur the U.N. must improve upon existing efforts. The following recommendations build on current programs and protocols and suggest a direction for future U.N. policy:

First, the U.N. should strengthen prevention efforts. The U.N. should continue to improve sexual exploitation and abuse training tools based on available technology, particularly computer-based modules. The U.N. should also continue to work with community leaders and local police by training them to understand and recognize sexual exploitation and abuse within their community. Awareness-raising efforts must combat the perception that sexual exploitation and abuse is acceptable or “normal.”

Second, the U.N. should enforce standards and increase accountability. Peacekeeping troop conduct is primarily the responsibility of troop contributing countries, which are now required to report to the U.N. on sexual exploitation and abuse investigations and prosecutorial actions. However, these countries often delay investigations or fail to conduct them altogether. The U.N. should continue systematically following-up with troop contributors and stay well-informed of the actions taken to punish offenders. Further, vetting capabilities should be improved to make sure those peacekeepers who committed sexual exploitation and abuse are not allowed to return to any peacekeeping mission.

Third, the U.N. should improve victim assistance mechanisms and develop stronger in-country partnerships in all missions. In-country partnerships include community-based organizations and non-governmental organizations that provide support to victims and are coordinated through an in-mission U.N. focal point.

Lastly, the U.N. should review the effectiveness of the overall effort. Although U.N. measures to address sexual exploitation and abuse have been subject to ongoing monitoring and assessments, there has not been an independent evaluation of the entire approach since the Zeid Report. 

The U.N. has taken commendable steps. Nevertheless, as long as instances of sexual exploitation and abuse continue to occur, there is more work to be done.

Watch Jenna Stern discuss the issue brief below or here.


This policy brief is the first in a series of Stimson’s Civilians in Conflict project publications, which will explore issues relevant to this year’s high-level review of UN peacekeeping, with a focus on how UN interventions can better protect civilians.

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