U.N. Notebook | June 10, 2003
from U. N. Wire Peacekeeping's Unsavory Side

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 protect.

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 boys."

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 U.N. personnel.

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 Eastern Europe.

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 study, Women, 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 Nations.

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 homes.

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 said.

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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 Journal Group. For information on National Journal Group publications, see NationalJournal.com.

Copyright © 2003 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.