Unequal gender dynamics can contribute to peacekeepers abusing their power. | Foto: dimitrisvetsikas1969 via Pixabay | Content License

Beyond Zero Tolerance: The Persisting Challenge of Sexual Abuse by UN Peacekeepers

The United Nations (UN) deploys peacekeepers worldwide to help build peace and security. Meanwhile, a serious problem persists: sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) perpetrated by peacekeepers. Despite extensive efforts, including codes of conduct, sanctions, and training, reports of sexual abuse by peacekeepers continue within mission contexts. By drawing on UN documents aiming at ending SEA by regulating peacekeepers’ behaviour, this blog article examines the gender dimensions of the rules. I argue that a military masculinity culture is reflected in the UN rules that perpetuate instead of fight the risk of SEA.

Examining UN Regulations to Understand SEA

This blog article presents major findings of my Master thesis which performed a qualitative text analysis of four UN documents: 

(1) Ten Rules: Code of Personal Conduct for Blue Helmets, an early regulation outlining ten rules for peacekeepers to carry at all times; 

(2) the Secretary-General’s Bulletin, the most often discussed regulation introducing a zero-tolerance policy; 

(3) the Disciplinary Directives for Uniformed Personnel, clarifying procedures for peacekeeper misconduct; and 

(4) We Are United Nations Peacekeepers, summarising explicitly what is expected of and forbidden for peacekeepers. 

These documents are considered the most relevant publications by the UN regulating peacekeepers’ behaviour concerning SEA. While there are many UN documents more generally addressing SEA, the inclusion of women, gender mainstreaming or rethinking gender, the rules I analysed directly prescribe and proscribe behaviour and lay out disciplinary measures and sanctions for misbehaviour. Rules are informative sources for a focused analysis as they give insight into what is included or omitted in these regulations and how the UN conceptualises abuse, exploitation, gender and the peacekeeper itself. Understanding the underlying assumptions of these concepts can also help explain why abuse persists. 

My approach follows a Feminist Institutionalist framework, which offers an analytical lens for examining the role of rules in perpetuating or challenging gender inequalities across various social and political contexts. Ideally, examinations of formal written rules and informal oral rules would complement each other. Due to time and research limitations, I was only able to cover formal rules. I approached the above-listed rules on three key dimensions: (1) peacekeepers’ interactions with civilians, (2) their private lives, and (3) their actions related to SEA. The central question was whether these rules exhibit gendered patterns, and if so, whether military masculinity is discernible within them. 

Unpacking Military Masculinity

Traditionally, the image of the modern soldier was constructed in most parts of the globe as a male “patriotic defender of the home” (Mannitz 2013, 38). However, global norms aiming at the rule of law and the protection of universal human rights created a demand for different and more complex roles for soldiers, including the protection of civilian rights and infrastructure, humanitarian values and democratic institutions. Nevertheless, empirical studies show that an aggressive preparedness to apply violence has remained central to many soldiers’ identities and that soldiering continues to be mainly masculine-coded. This culture, termed military masculinity (Enloe 1990; Higate 2004; Higate and Henry 2004; Sjoberg and Via 2010; Whitworth 2004, 2008), creates and is reproduced by unequal power relations between men and women, favouring a sense of entitlement among men in military roles to abuse their power. These dynamics can contribute to peacekeepers abusing their power when interacting with local populations, making, not only, but in particular, women and girls vulnerable to SEA. 

Peeling Back the Layers of UN Rules: Breaking or Perpetuating Gender Stereotypes?

At the first reading, the four documents presented themselves as doing a good job in addressing peacekeeper-perpetrated SEA: the rules are formulated gender-neutral by speaking of peacekeepers as they, rather than of the peacekeeper as him. Peacekeepers are asked to present themselves as helpers and protectors of civilians, being kind and respectful, meanwhile able and willing to risk their lives for those in need. Behavioural expectations combine feminine and masculine constructed attributes without consciously splitting the roles into women as helpers and men as protectors. Finally, the UN obviously recognized the problem of persisting SEA and therefore formulated many rules that prohibit any form of dehumanising, exploitative, abusive or violent behaviour. The Bulletin, for example, includes a definition of sexual exploitation as “any actual or attempted abuse of a position of vulnerability, differential power, or trust, for sexual purposes […]” (UN Secretariat 2003, 1). By making the effort to define exploitation and not only to forbid it, the UN shows that they are willing to deal with the problem of peacekeeper-perpetrated abuse and exploitation in-depth. 

Nevertheless, particularly the regulations of (sexual) relationships reveal underlying gender norms presenting gender as a binary, women as good but weak victims and men as strong but also as perpetrators. Within the ‘Ten Rules’, for example, women are explicitly portrayed as victims, while men are implicitly represented as perpetrators through the formulation “[d]o not indulge in immoral acts of sexual, physical or psychological abuse or exploitation of the local population or United Nations staff, especially women and children” (United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations 1998, 1). Here, women are constructed as the Other, against a male peacekeeper. This one-dimensional portrayal of femininity as weakness reinforces military masculinity. More than this, the rules also fail to grasp the complexity of post-conflict settings. For example, the above standing definition of exploitation does not consider when a UN peacekeeper does not hold more power than a civilian in a post-conflict setting. In short, can there ever be a consensual sexual relationship between a peacekeeper and a local in the mission arena? After all, the peacekeeper carries a weapon, often enjoys greater economic stability, and can leave the conflict scene in a worsening crisis (Simić 2012, 292).

In summary, the UN regulations intend to end peacekeeper-perpetrated abuse perpetuate gender stereotypes by portraying gender in binary terms and presenting inconsistent rules. The culture of military masculinity is thereby left untackled, perpetuating potential for abuse.

Where Does This Leave Us?

While the UN demands more nuanced characteristics and behaviour in the regulations than a replication of (military) masculinity, the rules simultaneously perpetuate gender stereotypes. The rules rely heavily on a female victim–male perpetrator narrative, which fails to grasp the complexity of sexual abuse and exploitation in (post) conflict settings and its gendered dimensions. Correspondingly, scholars have highlighted that peacekeepers are rarely held accountable for SEA (Dharmapuri 2011; Willett 2010) and that there is little effort to establish gender-specific training as a means of prevention.

Jasmine-Kim Westendorf argues that UN regulations of sex are rooted in paternalism and coloniality. Paternalism involves one party making decisions for others, often with good intentions but potentially limiting their autonomy. Applied to regulations of peacekeepers’ behaviour regarding SEA, the UN acts paternalistically to protect local populations, especially women and girls, potentially restricting their choices. Westendorf connects paternalism to coloniality through the Bulletin, highlighting how it recreates colonial power dynamics and institutional racial paternalism. She argues that stricter rules cannot solve the issue as they would treat women as a uniform group and constantly vulnerable, reinforcing local patriarchal systems, hiding other power dynamics leading to exploitation and restricting women’s choices in complex contexts. Combining Westendorf’s insights with my own, we must question whether stricter rules are a possible solution. And if not, what could be done to end sexual abuse by peacekeepers? 

By connecting the respective UN regulations to a perpetuation of military masculinity, I argue that stricter, more consistent and less stereotypical rules might weaken the conditions for SEA. While these findings need to be corroborated by research on informal rules, codes and schemes of behaviour on the ground, the analysis of UN regulations forms a baseline to understand the regulatory framework peacekeepers operate in daily. 

Existing research also shows the ambiguity of established gender stereotypes: Fröhlich’s analysis of South African peacekeepers’ understanding of UN Resolution 1325 reveals that while soldiers believe that men and women can perform peacekeeping equally well they also highlight women’s contribution to peacekeeping through their role as mothers. Field research within the context of peacekeeping missions could further our understanding of the practical effects which rules and guidelines render for everyday behaviour of peacekeepers in mission contexts.  

Looking Ahead: Recommendation for UN Action

The current UN rules do not succeed in eliminating the persistence of SEA and even contribute to a culture which sustains it. However, a comprehensive understanding requires an examination of peacekeepers’ behaviour in the field, especially in their interactions with and perceptions of local populations. Future research should probe how peacekeepers interpret and implement the UN rules, how they construct their own identity and those of local populations, and how both peacekeepers and locals reflect their (sexual) relationships generally, and in particular regarding key concepts like power and agency. Furthermore, peacekeepers should be examined more closely: which missions or national contingents have extremely high or low numbers of reported SEA? How do the contingents differ from others? Is there a connection between gender stereotypes in the home countries of contingents and reported SEA cases? 

In light of the Secretary-General’s New Agenda for Peace of July 2023, the UN should take seriously how much their own rules reflect gender stereotypes as well as a culture of military masculinity which can be devastating to advance the Women, Peace and Security agenda.

Julia Sigrid Radke

Julia Sigrid Radke

Julia Radke ist Praktikantin im Projekt „Coercion in Peacebuilding“ und studiert Politikwissenschaften im Master an der Uppsala Universität in Schweden. // Julia Radke is an intern within the “Coercion in Peacebuilding” project and a master student of political science at Uppsala University in Sweden. 

Julia Sigrid Radke

Julia Radke ist Praktikantin im Projekt „Coercion in Peacebuilding“ und studiert Politikwissenschaften im Master an der Uppsala Universität in Schweden. // Julia Radke is an intern within the “Coercion in Peacebuilding” project and a master student of political science at Uppsala University in Sweden. 

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