A new investigative report highlights allegations of sex abuse in a U.N.-led camp in Malakal, South Sudan. The report alleges that international aid workers from organizations such as Doctors Without Borders, the World Food Program and World Vision committed of a range of sexual abuses. And camp residents interviewed for the report claim U.N. peacekeepers bribed camp workers for access to women to abuse.
The report described allegations of rape, sexual exploitation, coercion of civilians — and children born of the rapes committed. Will anyone be held accountable? My research examining U.N. agreements on abuse and victims finds that punishment for those committing sexual exploitation and abuse within U.N.-sponsored missions is rare.
U.N. peacekeeping missions have fielded many allegations
My work focuses on U.N. peacekeepers — international aid workers are not covered by the same impunity, which may allow for more flexibility in prosecuting those found guilty of these abuses. Initiatives working toward accountability like Interpol’s Project Soteria rely on aid workers’ countries of origin to cooperate, however, which may limit chances of punishment.
These types of allegations are not uncommon. Since 2010, there have been more than 1,200 reported allegations of sexual abuse in U.N. peacekeeping missions. Over 30 missions reported at least some cases between 2010 and 2022. The highest counts were in missions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic, Haiti and Liberia. The patterns of alleged abuse tend to reflect the number of peacekeeping troops and prevalence of sexual violence in the conflict.
The U.N. suffers from a lack of accountability
It’s difficult to hold alleged perpetrators accountable in conflict and humanitarian settings, in part because of limitations on U.N. jurisdiction. And the United Nations does not have its own standing army — which means U.N. peacekeeping forces rely on military personnel from U.N. troop-contributing countries.
In their agreements guiding troop contributions, countries make arrangements to remove their troops from potential U.N. and/or local prosecution. The U.N.’s reliance on national governments to send troops often means impunity for peacekeepers. Advocacy groups have widely criticized the United Nations for these arrangements, and for failing to prevent abuse.
What punishment options are available?
Punishment for sexual exploitation and abuse within U.N. missions can take many forms, including repatriation, fines, administrative leave, demotion and dismissal, as well as the prospect of prison time in the perpetrator’s home country.
Most of these punishments rely on troop-contributing countries to act. The U.N.’s only recourse is to repatriate peacekeepers accused of these abuses. The U.N. repatriated all 200 military peacekeeping personnel involved in substantiated allegations 2010-2019.
Troop-contributing countries have more punishment options available. The figure below shows the punishments they enacted in response to sexual abuse and exploitation allegations. Though many cases remained pending, the majority of completed investigations resulted in jail time.
How common is punishment?
Human rights abuse, especially sexual abuse, is likely to be underreported. Though the United Nations adopted a victim-centered approach to addressing allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation, the process generally relies on direct reporting at the U.N. mission or through online forms. Both routes are difficult for victims to navigate.
Once submitted, only about 16 percent of allegations filed in reports ended up resulting in punishments for alleged perpetrators.
What explains these punishment trends?
Who the victim is can affect the allegation credibility and chances of punishment. My research examining 33 peacekeeping missions found that the U.N. and the troop-contributing countries were more likely to issue punishments when children were victims of reported sexual abuse allegations. The United Nations punished 46 percent of perpetrators involved in allegations with identified child victims while troop-contributing countries punished 33 percent. This compares with an overall average punishment rate of about 16 percent for allegations involving victims of all ages.
That’s because the narratives frame children as innocent and vulnerable victims — and the media are likely to sensationalize heinous crimes against children. Research on how media and human rights agencies report abuses highlights how extreme cases draw in readers, for instance.
Children have special protection under international law. The 1959 U.N. Declaration of the Rights of the Child instructs that children “be among the first to receive protection and relief” because “mankind owes to the child the best it has to give.” The United States, notably, is the only country that hasn’t ratified the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child — there’s near-universal treaty commitment from the rest of the world. In domestic and international settings, juries are more likely to decide on harsher punishments when the victim is a child.
However, even for cases involving child victims, legal prosecution can be difficult. When a French court heard the case of French soldiers accused of sexually abusing children in Central African Republic, the judges decided not to bring charges, citing a lack of credible evidence.
Children often find reporting and navigating the investigation and legal proceedings more difficult than adults. In fact, 80 percent of the allegations of peacekeeper abuses against child victims that were deemed “unsubstantiated” received that ruling due to a lack of evidence needed for the investigation to move forward.
What happens now?
So even with the increased chance that abuse of children will be punished, most reported abuse cases are deemed unsubstantiated and most alleged peacekeeping perpetrators go unpunished.
While factors like mission training and increasing women in the peacekeeping mission can reduce overall incidents of sexual abuse and exploitation, without greater accountability these heinous rights violations likely will persist despite international condemnation.
In South Sudan, reports of abuse persisted for almost a decade, despite complaints filed with the United Nations and humanitarian agencies. U.N. Secretary General António Guterres called for an “urgent report” into the abuse. A big question now is whether the increased attention will pressure the United Nations and others to hold their personnel accountable and stop abuse.
Audrey L. Comstock is an assistant professor of political science at Arizona State University, Fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University, and author of “Committed to Rights: UN Human Rights Treaties and Legal Paths for Commitment and Compliance” (Cambridge University Press, 2021).