Who are the UN Peacekeepers?
U.N. Peacekeepers are an enforcement mechanism of the United Nations, and their missions are composed of troops donated by member states. The U.N. peacekeepers duties are to: protect civilians, prevent conflicts, build rule of law and security institutions, promote human rights, empower women, and deliver field support. U.N. peacekeeping is not explicitly provided for in the U.N. Charter. Peacekeeping operations typically derive their authority from Chapter VI of the U.N. Charter, which grants the U.N. Security Council the responsibility for the “Pacific Settlement of Disputes.” The Security Council may also rely on its Chapter VII powers to create peacekeeping missions in especially volatile situations, because this provision allows for “Action with Respect to the Peace, Breaches of the Peace and Acts of Aggression.”
The mission behind peacekeeping operations, to promote peace and security through cooperation, though admirable, has not always been perfectly executed. In the past 70 years, there have been instances of peacekeeping operations failing to fully protect civilians. These failures range from looking the other way as violence occurs, to more direct acts of violence by peacekeepers themselves.
One of the most notorious examples of peacekeeper ineffectiveness was the failure to prevent the massacre at Srebrenica in 1995. Srebrenica had been designated a U.N. safe zone for refugees amid ethnic conflicts in the dissolving former Yugoslavia. 20,000 refugees fled to the U.N. base at Srebrenica as Serbian forces began an attack on the surrounding town. The Dutch peacekeeping force responsible for the base handed over 5,000 people who had been sheltering in their base to Serbian forces. 8,000 Bosniak men and boys were killed at Srebrenica, where they had expected protection from the U.N.’s Dutch peacekeepers.
Recent attempts to improve accountability
In 2015, the U.N. began requiring a certification indicating that peacekeepers have no prior history of human rights violations before deployment to their missions. To improve accountability, in 2016, the U.N. Secretary General implemented procedures including: issuing a report stating the U.N. would send commanders and troops home, and the suspension of pay to individuals and member countries if allegations of abuse were substantiated. Furthermore, peacekeeping accountability was prioritized through the establishment of a panel on peacekeeping abuse, and the appointment of a special coordinator to the issue of peacekeeper abuse crimes.
Special investigations are one tool that may be used to assess the most extreme failures of U.N. peacekeeping missions to protect civilians. Until January 2020, there were no codified guidelines governing what would trigger these investigations, how they operated, or what would happen with their findings. The ad hoc nature of the investigations meant it was unclear when an incident would trigger a special investigation, the scope of the special investigation, or how to connect lessons from failures at one mission to future missions.
From 2016 to 2019, there were three independent special investigations, initiated by the U.N. into situations where peacekeepers failed to protect the civilians. The first investigation was in regards to attacks and sexual violence towards civilans on U.N. premises in South Sudan in 2016. This special investigation resulted in a report, that was later released to the public. The report identified factors that contributed to the violence and recommendations for improving peacekeeping missions. The second investigation looked into peacekeeper’s inability to prevent violence against civilians in the south-east of the Central African Republic (CAR). This investigation resulted in publically published recommendations, which included action plans to improve early-warning and response mechanisms for peacekeepers. The third investigation focused on the shooting of 38 Burundian asylum seekers and the injury of 100 more, just a few hundred feet away from a U.N. peacekeeping base. This special investigation was never officially concluded and no findings were released to the public.
In 2018, following these investigations and declarations, the U.N. Security Council passed resolution 2436, calling for more transparency from special investigations into peacekeeping. The U.N. General Assembly’s Special Committee on Peacekeeping Operations, and the U.N. General Assembly, also issued declarations calling for more peacekeeper accountability. These actions demonstrate that the special investigations alone are not doing enough to curtail peacekeeper abuse.
Individual State Actions
In addition to the U.N. independent investigations, states themselves have taken steps to address misconduct. In 2019, the Netherland’s highest court held that the Dutch state was only 10% responsible for the deaths in connection with the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Srebrenica in 1995. The victims of this atrocity expressed their disdain for the decision, stating the ruling “was a humiliation again. Just like in 1995 the Dutch were in charge, and we didn’t know what was going on.” To further attempt to address the issues surrounding peacekeepers, the United States, in September 2018, proposed a Security Council Resolution that aimed to “[improve] mission performance and [address] peacekeeper performance challenges, including by deploying the most capable and willing units, implementing a performance policy framework, and transparent reporting by the U.N. on performance.” The United States is heavily invested in the success of peacekeeping missions and sits in a position of substantial power to enact peacekeeper reforms and accountability measures, because it is the largest financial contributor to the U.N. peacekeepers.
Continuation of the Problem
Despite the efforts by the U.N. Secretary General and member states to systematically approach the issues of accountability, transparency, and violence against civilians due directly to peacekeepers or their negligence, continue to be serious problems for U.N. peacekeeping.
For instance, in 2021, several reports exposed the ongoing problem of peacekeeper sexual exploitation in Haiti and the Central African Republic (CAR). U.N. peacekeepers were initially sent to Haiti in 1991 following a military coup. Since 2007, there have been 120 reports of sexual abuse or exploitation in Haiti, including reports of a child sex ring run by peacekeepers from Sri Lanka. In addition to sexual violence, U.N. peacekeepers are responsible for bringing a devastating outbreak of cholera to Haiti in 2010, killing over 9,700 people, and infecting over 819,000 people.
Haiti is not the only example of U.N. peacekeeper sexual misconduct against civilians. In 2014 the U.N. deployed peacekeepers to the Central African Republic (CAR) to protect civilians amid a civil armed conflict. Unfortunately, allegations against peacekeepers in CAR for sexual misconduct against civilians were a recurring problem. In September 2021, the U.N. Secretary General ordered the withdrawal of Ganonese peacekeepers from CAR following a new wave of allegations. In total there have been 32 allegations of sexual misconduct by 81 different peacekeepers since 2015 in CAR. A U.N. spokesperson stated that the decision to withdraw these troops “demonstrated failure to respond effectively to a history of allegations and sexual exploitations in the Central African Republic…”
These situations illustrate how the current regime for holding U.N. peacekeepers accountable is not working. If the U.N. wants to uphold its mandate to protect civilians, then it must find a better way to ensure its own forces do not contribute to violence and instability in the communities they aim to protect. There continue to be attempts to reform peacekeeping operations. Currently, the U.N. Secretary General is working on his Action for Peacekeeping (AP4) Initiative, which is aimed at “refocus[ing] peacekeeping with more targeted mandates, make[ing] operations stronger and safer, mobilize[ing] support for political solutions and better equipped and trained forces.” The AP4 Initiative identifies eight areas of improvement for peacekeeping operations; one of the targeted areas is performance and accountability of peacekeepers.
While the continuous efforts by the U.N. to address peacekeeper abuses demonstrates a commitment to their mandate, they are seemingly ineffective at addressing the underlying causes. Ultimately, peacekeepers must fully accept their responsibility for the safety of the civilian communities they are sent to protect.
Author Biography: Meredith Gusky is a senior moderator for ILPB and a 2L at the George Washington Law School and is pursuing a Masters in International Affairs at the George Washington Elliott School. Meredith is grateful for the support of the other editors and writers on ILPB and especially to her cat, Grace, for all their help.