Sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) by United Nations (UN) peacekeepers is a critical issue. The UN has had a zero-tolerance policy in place since 2003 and has made data on SEA allegations in peace operations publicly available since 2007. This data reveals that peacekeeping missions with civilian protection mandates account for over 95 percent of reported allegations, while missions without such mandates account for under 5 percent. However, gaps and inconsistencies in data collection, reporting, and interpretation make it difficult to draw conclusions from the data alone. We need substantial context and case-specific knowledge to fully interpret the reported numbers. This policy brief makes recommendations to the UN on how to improve data collection and clarify reporting mechanisms, and calls for extensive external investigation to explain the variation in reported cases of SEA.
Recommendations for the United Nations Secretariat to improve the UN’s response to SEA in peace operations include:
- Establish consistent data-collection processes across missions and time: It is vital for the Secretariat to design and establish a clear, well-defined data-collection strategy that is applicable across all missions, and then to leave that strategy in place for multiple years.
- Distinguish between sexual abuse and sexual exploitation: Data collection, reporting, and interpretation should distinguish more clearly and systematically between sexual exploitation and sexual abuse. Use of the umbrella term SEA conflates multiple issues influenced by context and country.
- Investigate specific missions more deeply: In order to interpret the data provided in the misconduct tracking system (MTS), scholars and analysts should undertake extensive and context-specific case studies. Without full contextual interpretation, reported numbers, their fluctuations, and their comparisons are ambiguous at best and misleading at worst.
- Conduct external evaluations: When UN troops are accused of wrongdoing, the UN should not function as the accused, the lead investigator, and the judge all at once—even if there are geographic and bureaucratic separations between various parts of the UN system. Allowing external actors to verify and assist in reporting and investigations would eventually strengthen both what we know about SEA and the UN’s ability to respond to these violations.
- Increase accountability: Troop-contributing countries should work alongside the UN Secretariat and the Office of the Victims’ Rights Advocate at the UN to strengthen internal guidelines that allow for the prosecution of perpetrators of SEA. National capitals should subsequently prosecute perpetrators of SEA in UN peacekeeping missions to the fullest extent of the law.