Research shows reform can end abuse by UN peacekeepers

By Professor Rosa Freedman, Professor of Law, Conflict and Global Development, University of Reading

United Nations flag

The vast majority of the over 100,000 UN uniformed peacekeeping personnel perform their jobs with courage, dedication and professionalism. Yet those who do commit sexual offences bring shame on the entire UN system and betray the trust of those that they have been sent to protect.

There is a need for system-wide reform to ensure that such abuses cannot again occur with widespread impunity. University of Reading researchers and Keeping Children Safe are forming a proposal for such reform (details on our website) and the project will be showcased during our ESRC Festival of Social Science events next week.

Despite recent measures announced by the new UN Secretary-General, attempts to reform the system have been piecemeal and have not addressed a complex problem that requires nuanced and targeted responses. While there is general agreement at the UN, in member states and from civil society, about what needs to be done to address the issue of sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeepers, very few practical solutions have been proposed let alone implemented.

A key problem is that the current laws, policies and practices operate across different scales, including at the international level, at the UN level, at the local level where the peacekeeping operation is being carried out, and within the countries that contribute troops to peacekeeping operations. As a result, very few effective solutions have been designed that can address the causes and consequences of peacekeeper sexual exploitation and abuse.

We have designed, and are now testing and implementing, an effective solution that can be adapted for use in all peacekeeping operations. Our research demonstrates that work across and involving all of those scales can produce effective practical solutions to discrete aspects of this complex problem.

The research that we have conducted provides a robust methodology for implementing solutions to safeguard children in peacekeeping contexts. Our toolkit provides prevention, protection and safeguarding specifically in relation to children within peacekeeping.

The toolkit builds upon research funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and by the British Academy. The research provides the evidence base for how to safeguard children from peacekeeper sexual exploitation and abuse, and is based on desk research on law, human rights, and political science, alongside qualitative data gathered from field research, and combined with work with stakeholders to create a context-specific toolkit for Peacekeeping Training Centres and for Troop-Contributing Countries.

Using interdisciplinary research and through working with a comprehensive group of stakeholders, we have created an evidence base for recommendations necessary to drive forward the research and policy agenda.

The toolkit, versions of which have been successfully implemented in thousands of organisations in nearly every country in the world, is based on international standards for child safeguarding, and is implemented within an organisation through (i) a self-assessment of current policies and practices, (ii) a robust mapping of relevant local and international laws and practices on child safeguarding, (iii) developing context-specific policies, measures and procedures based on the organisation and the legal mapping, (iv) training, (v) follow-up.

The project has a specific focus on the UN peacekeeping operation in Liberia, following-up on the 2002 reports of widespread sexual exploitation and abuse of children within that peacekeeping operation. We have analysed the changes that have been made to policies and practices within the peacekeeping operation and UN country team over the past 15 years since those initial reports.

Through a thorough exploration of current child safeguarding laws, policies and practices, ranging from training for peacekeepers through to reporting mechanisms and access to justice, we have identified the gaps and weaknesses, and designed a context-specific toolkit that will systematically address those issues and provide streamlined child safeguarding based on international standards and that is relevant to the peacekeeping operation in Liberia.

More information is available online on the free ESRC Festival of Social Science events in London. A talk entitled ‘Peacekeeper or Perpetrator?’ takes place on Monday 6 November at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office but is SOLD OUT.

A talk entitled ‘Gender Equality: How can the UN lead?’ follows on Tuesday 7 November at London School of Economics. Places will be available for those who turn up on the night, but you can register for a place online using the link above.