U.N. Notebook | June 10, 2003
by Barbara Crossette
UNITED NATIONS—Among the uglier stories surrounding international
peacekeeping in recent years is that U.N. operations too often fuel booms
in local prostitution, frequently involving women abducted or duped by
criminal trafficking gangs to be forced into brothels. Sadly, there
are also documented cases of peacekeepers—a minority, to be
sure—who sexually abuse local people whom they are sent to
Officials offer some explanations—not
excuses. With numerous and often large peacekeeping contingents in
the field, the United Nations struggles to find enough troops, and that
means having to settle for soldiers from national armies known to be weak
in discipline and woefully lacking in human rights training.
Furthermore, peacekeepers are by the nature of their jobs frequently based
in troubled, impoverished regions where the social order has broken down
and a lot of distasteful, if not illicit, activity flourishes.
Governments providing soldiers for U.N. service rarely prosecute those
sent home after charges of sexual abuse have been made against them.
In that environment, troop commanders and political
representatives of the secretary general have been known to shrug off the
problem, saying that female camp followers have been part of military
operations since the beginning of human history and "boys will be
Jacques Klein is different. A dynamic American
workaholic with a quick trigger for outrage, Klein has headed two
operations in the Balkans, most recently as the special representative of
the secretary general in Bosnia, an office that was closed at the end of
2002 when the European Union took over responsibility for the
country. Klein can talk for hours about everything the United
Nations did (or couldn't do) for Bosnia, but he is particularly proud of a
program he instituted to tackle the trafficking in women to fill Bosnian
brothels, which, he is quick to point out, served many more local men than
Under Klein's leadership, a unique antitrafficking
program—headed by a determined French-born journalist who had doubled
as an international civil servant in several U.N. missions—chalked up
846 police raids on brothels, shut down 152 businesses, filed criminal
charges and levied fines against operators, interviewed over 2,300 women
and rescued and sent home 265 victims of trafficking. The victims,
some still in their early teens, had been kidnapped in countries across
The journalist, Celhia de Lavarene, who is based in New
York and works for Radio France Internationale, is now back home with a
bigger mission in mind. She is organizing a new nongovernmental
organization she calls STOP—for Stop Trafficking of People—
and wants to see it become an adjunct of every U.N. mission. The
problem of trafficking occurs everywhere, "including wherever the United
Nations has a peacekeeping mission," she wrote in her draft proposal
asking for support from foundations and private donors.
A tough appraisal of the failures of peacekeeping to
protect local women in all phases of an operation is part of a new report
by the U.N. Development Program for Women (UNIFEM). The new
War and Peace: The Independent Experts' Assessment on the Impact of
Armed Conflict on Women and Women's Role in Peacebuilding—written by Elisabeth Rehn, a former defense minister of Finland, and Ellen
Johnson Sirleaf, a former Liberian minister who now chairs the Open
Society Institute of West Africa, part of the Soros network—says
"rape, trafficking in women and children, sexual enslavement and child
abuse often coexist alongside peacekeeping operations." It calls
U.N. policies "extremely ambiguous in regulating interaction between U.N.
peacekeeping personnel and the local female population."
De Lavarene has seen numerous situations first hand;
for example, in Cambodia in the early 1990s where women, girls and young
boys in a shattered nation were preyed on by troops from regions as
diverse as Europe, Africa and Asia. To this day, many Cambodians,
overlooking the fact that prostitution was big business in Southeast Asia
before foreign troops came, have been persuaded to believe that a huge and
persistent trafficking problem—now primarily involving Vietnamese
women brought to Phnom Penh—owes its origins to the United
A reporter visiting countries where the United Nations
has had a large peacekeeping presence hears these stories
frequently. Rwandans, also recovering from mass killings and the
disruption of national life, were appalled in 1995 at the behavior of
fellow Africans sent in as peacekeepers. More recently in newly
independent East Timor, where the United Nations still has a presence,
there have been urgent pleas for intervention in the trafficking of Thai
women into brothels there.
At U.N. headquarters, significant efforts have been
made to deal with abuses of women and children, including sex
trafficking. Through the 1990s, as war became more devastating to
civilian populations than at any time in the 20th century, the
special needs of women rose to the level of the Security Council, which
passed a resolution in 2000 demanding attention to the problem.
"Women and girls have become prime targets of armed
conflict and suffered its impact disproportionately," a summary of the
resolution said, "particularly as gender-based and sexual violence have
become weapons of warfare and one of the defining characteristics of
contemporary armed conflict."
Women in refugee camps were not spared. Nor are
those returning home to regroup their fractured families and war-damaged
Secretary General Kofi Annan produced a report last
year that outlined how much protection is available to women under
existing international law, and called for condemnation of all parties to
conflict anywhere who violate women's rights. International
tribunals and the new International Criminal Court have greatly broadened
the definitions of war crimes to cover abuses of women. Numerous
U.N. documents have called for more participation of women in peace
negotiations and post-conflict rebuilding. The Security Council,
turning to the peacekeepers themselves, demanded that a "gender
perspective" be built into every peacekeeping operation, and that
guidelines be circulated to ensure that there are no lapses.
On Thursday, Annan's special adviser on gender issues and
the advancement of women, Angela King, released a "briefing note" to the
Security Council reminding council members of their "commitment to put
women and girls at the center of peace efforts" as they undertake a
mission to West Africa and the Great Lakes region this month.
It's all there on paper. "It is something the
secretary general and the Security Council are taking very seriously,"
said Myriam Dessables, the U.N. "focal point" for women.
Reports of abuses by peacekeepers
or other mission employees, most recently in West Africa and before that
in East Timor, are investigated. But everyone knows that
unacceptable behavior still happens far away and out of sight.
De Lavarene said in an interview that in the field the
United Nations doesn't seem to put as much of a priority on trafficking or
the sex trade as it does at headquarters. Klein had to fight hard to
get approval for de Lavarene's assignment in Bosnia. She hails him
as the exception that proves her rule—and sparks her hopes. "The
U.N. is a good institution, when they do what they have to do," she
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Barbara Crossette, a writer on foreign affairs and columnist for U.N. Wire, was The New York Times bureau chief at the United Nations from 1994 to 2001. U.N. Wire is a free daily online news service covering news about and
related to the United Nations. It is sponsored by the U.N. Foundation and
appears on the foundation site, but is produced independently by The National
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Copyright © 2003 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All