New revelations about the sexual exploitation of hundreds of women by United Nations peacekeepers have emerged a decade after the organization first identified the problem.
In a draft report obtained by the Associated Press, the U.N.’s Office of Internal Oversight Services — a U.N. watchdog within the U.N. — said members of a peacekeeping mission had “transactional sex” with more than 225 Haitian women. The women traded sex for basic needs, including food and medication.
“For rural women, hunger, lack of shelter, baby care items, medication and household items were frequently cited as the ‘triggering need,’” the report said. In exchange for sex, women got “’church shoes,’ cell phones, laptops and perfume, as well as money” from peacekeepers.
Women in Haiti sometimes protested when peacekeepers who said they would pay for sex did not, but most were unaware the United Nations prohibited sexual exploitation and has a hotline to report it.
“In cases of non-payment, some women withheld the badges of peacekeepers and threatened to reveal their infidelity via social media,” the report said. “Only seven interviewees knew about the United Nations policy prohibiting sexual exploitation and abuse.”
According to the report, investigators went to Haiti last year to shine a light on the United Nations’s persistent problem with transactional sex. Even as the organization said claims of such abuse are down across the world, the report found an issue with “significant underreporting.” It also said a third of alleged sexual abuse involves people younger than 18, that assistance to victims is “severely deficient” and that the average investigation of claims takes more than a year.
While the United Nations prohibits “exchange of money, employment, goods or services for sex,” the organization’s policies on sexual relations between peacekeepers and those they serve are less stringent. Such sex, “based on inherently unequal power dynamics,” according to the United Nations, is discouraged, but permitted.
The report said some peacekeepers think their right to have sex — as long as that sex is not paid for — should not be questioned.
“Staff with long mission experience states that was a ‘general view that people should have romantic rights’ and raised the issue of sexuality as a human right,” the report said.
There are about 125,000 U.N. peacekeepers around the world, according to the AP. About 7,000 are in Haiti — a mission that, along with missions in Congo, Liberia and South Sudan, accounts for the most allegations of sexual abuse.
One of the U.N. staffers who produced the report declined comment to the AP, preferring to wait for the report to be released; the Office of Internal Oversight Services wasn’t immediately available for comment.
The new revelations about sexual abuse by peacekeepers come a decade after Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, now U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, tackled sexual exploitation in a landmark investigation referred to as “the Zeid report.”
Zeid produced the report in 2005 after an investigation into sexual exploitation by U.N. peacekeepers in the Congo revealed “‘zero-compliance with zero-tolerance’ throughout the mission.”
“The record of United Nations peacekeeping and peacekeeper personnel is distinguished, and many have given their lives in the cause of peace,” the Zeid report read. “There will always be those who do not meet the established standards of conduct, however.”
The United Nations, including Secretary General Kofi Annan, quickly threw itself behind change, including the standardization of rules against sexual exploitation by peacekeeping personnel, the investigation of peacekeeping operations, and filing criminal charges.
“We are committed to implement the necessary reforms as quickly as possible,” Annan said in a statement.
But 10 years later, it seems that little has changed.
“Even with the implementation of stronger sexual exploitation and abuse policies and procedures, holding perpetrators accountable remains a challenge,” according to a recent report from Stimson, a Washington-based think tank. “As long as instances of sexual exploitation and abuse continue to occur the U.N. must improve upon existing efforts.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article said U.N. peacekeepers work with about 125,000 people around the world. That is not correct; there are 125,000 U.N. peacekeepers around the world.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the year of the Haitian earthquake in a photo caption. The earthquake was in 2010, not 2012.