If we were to survey one hundred people their opinion of peacekeepers, our question would undoubtedly evoke a mix of emotions and perspectives. Many will see a well-intentioned international initiative that attempts to promote peace and stability in the world’s most volatile regions. In aiming to fulfill the UN’s promise to “save succeeding generations of the scourges of war”, peacekeepers arguably embody and put into practice the Organization’s fundamental principles. Yet, there are a number of voices that cry against this perspective. For many, peacekeeping has been a controversial issue from its inception. Problems arise regarding UN legitimacy to conduct such military operations as well as its perception as a breach of sovereignty. Nevertheless, one unresolved issue continues to attract a great deal of attention: individual accountability of peacekeepers.
There are a series of questions that surround this issue. Firstly, if a peacekeeper commits a crime, who is accountable for it? On the one hand, there is the expectation that the peacekeeper himself is accountable, but some argue that this also extends to the mission in general or to the UN as an organization. If it is the UN that are sending men and women from around the world to maintain peace in a destabilised region, should we expect that they have a certain degree of responsibility regarding the action of those peacekeepers? Others argue that the country of origin of the perpetrator has a responsibility to better train their personnel in order to avoid this kind of violation.
Secondly, who is to judge these crimes and deliver punishment? Some believe this task lies with the perpetrator’s country of origin. Nevertheless, often local authorities have weak legal foundations that may not be able to deliver proper judgement of these perpetrators or may do so for political gains rather than legal accountability. Therefore, some argue that the UN itself has a role to play in punishing perpetrators. This also sparks controversy as punishment derived from the UN oversteps their mandate as an organization.
Thirdly, who will enforce these punishments and keep peacekeepers accountable? As stated above, local institutions or international organizations may lack legitimacy to impose such accountability. As a consequence today, most of the responsibility lies with the country of origin of these peacekeepers. Courts then decide if they will trial the peacekeepers and under which charges. However, despite the fact that troop contributing states can trial peacekeepers, this doesn’t always mean they do.
Fairly often, peacekeepers are not tried in their local courts raising the question as to whether the concept of accountability exists at all. You don’t need to look far to see this at work, as French courts decided in 2017 not to charge three of their peacekeepers accused of sexual abuse in the UN Mission to Central African Republic. The lack of action displayed by courts in troop-contributing states combined with the inability of international or other nation’s legal mechanism to try peacekeepers creates a loophole of accountability; preventing the UN system to guarantee an effective justice process.
It could be said that sexual abuse committed by peacekeepers demonstrates the worst of humanity whilst it strives to accomplish its best: peace and stability. The continuing issue is widely reported and criticized, not only for causing untold horrors to the very people the UN is meant to protect, but also by calling into question the legitimacy of UNPK missions themselves. Despite this negative record, change is on the horizon. Recent UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has made the prevention of sexual abuse by peacekeepers a priority of his term, both denouncing high-level UN bodies on this issue and launching a new initiative of a victim-centered approach to prevention and accountability. One can look at this new initiative with a familiar careful optimism, as it demonstrates long-needed innovative answers to UN structural issues. However, as with most UN structural issues, there remains an uphill climb to reach lasting change.
Change comes from the indignant cry of those who witness injustice and take action to remedy it. The issue of UN accountability reform is a fragile subject and navigating the waters of national sensibilities requires great skill. Yet, alongside the leadership of influential figures such as UNSG Guterres, the time is ripe for change. Putting public pressure on policy makers and engaging third sector organizations to raise attention is essential to close this accountability loophole.
This article was written by Raphael Dias e Silva. Raphael is currently studying his masters in International Security at Sciences Po, Paris. He is Brazilian and moved to Europe to pursue graduate education.