Sexual exploitation and abuse by UN peacekeepers


What is the issue?

Allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse of children during peacekeeping operations established by the United Nations first came to light in the 1990s. Since then, complaints against UN-mandated military personnel, UN police, and civilian and humanitarian staff have continued to surface. There have been well over 2,000 formal allegations made against UN peacekeepers and other UN civilian personnel globally, including more than 300 complaints by children. However, the real number of child victims is thought to be much higher, while only a tiny number of perpetrators have been convicted.

Despite how pervasive the issue is, reform, accountability and redress for survivors are either non-existent or far too slow.

What is the problem?

While the UN has taken a number of steps to address sexual exploitation and abuse in peacekeeping missions, including through its ‘zero tolerance policy’ in 2003, the problem nonetheless continues. Additionally, incidents of abuse in Central African Republic (CAR) from 2014 onwards have raised serious concerns about the UN's transparency in dealing with the problem. It was revealed that senior UN officials mishandled cases and attempts were made to keep allegations out of the public domain, including by investigating the actions of whistleblowers rather than those accused of abuse.

There are jurisdictional hurdles, too, however. The UN has no jurisdiction to prosecute either peacekeeping troops or civilian staff. Peacekeepers provided by UN Member States can only be prosecuted for crimes committed on duty by their own State. The same applies to UN staff, who are immune from any legal process in the host State for any wrongful act performed in their official capacity. Consequently, very few individuals alleged to have committed abuse, exploitation, or mishandling cases, whether military or civilian, have been successfully prosecuted.

With regard to accountability, it has has been undermined by a lack of trained and experienced investigators. For example, evidence of sexual violence during armed conflict is often poorly collected, lost or damaged, and the process is often delayed to the extent that the evidence is no longer usable. Child victims have often been repeatedly interviewed, or had their confidentiality undermined by investigators who have little experience working with children. Other barriers to child victims’ access to justice include the fear of reprisals, of not being taken seriously, and the lack of opportunities for redress.

What is the solution?

Key questions that require urgent action are: accountability for sexual violence by UN peacekeepers, access to justice for child survivors, and transparency and a greater political will within the UN. The UN should:

  • address jurisdictional constraints to improve accountability by establishing an international jurisdiction mechanism, which could allow for peacekeeping troops and UN civilian staff to be prosecuted;  

  • protect whistleblowers in law, UN policy and practice, as their actions are indispensable in highlighting malpractice, wrongdoing and abuse;

  • ensure that perpetrators of sexual violence are identified and prosecuted in their home countries and that the troop-contributing country is held to account for the actions of its own peacekeepers;

  • strengthen the protocols and processes for gathering evidence, such as through evidence-gathering response teams that can be deployed without delay; and

  • improve access to psychosocial and medical care provided to victims of sexual violence, including by clarifying how comprehensive the care is and who is implementing it.