Mapping the impact of sexual exploitation and abuse by interveners in peace operations

Sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeepers, aid workers and other interveners in peace operations is one of the major challenges facing the international community. La Trobe's Dr Jasmine-Kim Westendorf is researching the impact on the international community and peacebuilding operations.

Dr Jasmine-Kim Westendorf provides an in-depth view of her current Transforming Human Societies funded research project: Mapping the impact of sexual abuse and exploitation by interveners in peace operations.

Dr Westendorf is the project's lead researcher and is collaborating with Louise Searle and Beth Eggleston, Directors, Humanitarian Advisory Group.

Sexual exploitation and abuse in peace operations: What is the challenge?

Sixteen years ago, on 31 October 2000, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, which mandated the involvement of women at all levels of in peace processes, the incorporation of gender perspectives and training in peacekeeping, and the protection of women from sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) in post-conflict contexts.

In the 15 years since, and despite the 2003 adoption of the Secretary-General’s Bulletin on zero-tolerance of sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) by peacekeepers, reports have shown that sexual exploitation and abuse by interveners remains widespread in peace operations.

Extensive and organised sexual exploitation and abuse of women and children by peacekeepers and aid workers has been documented in peace operations in Kosovo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Liberia, Mali, South Sudan, Iraq, Haiti, and Cambodia, and has included sex trafficking, rape, murder, prostitution and pornography. Evidence has also emerged of sexual exploitation and abuse being perpetrated by private contractors working with UN peacekeeping operations.

In 2013 an official UN investigation declared sexual exploitation and abuse to be ‘the most significant risk to UN peacekeeping missions, above and beyond other key risks including protection of civilians.’ The UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has himself declared that ‘a single substantiated case of sexual exploitation or sexual abuse involving United Nations personnel is one case too many’.

And yet both civilian and military personnel associated with peacekeeping operations in conflict-affected contexts continue to perpetrate such acts, despite the development of policy frameworks designed to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse and hold to account those who perpetrate it. Why haven’t these policies worked? And do these behaviours undermine the credibility and effectiveness of the UN and other actors in peace operations?

Overview of our research project

Our research project is the first global study to investigate the long-term impact of sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeepers, aid workers, private contractors and other civilians associated with peacebuilding operations on the capacity of the international community to fulfil its goals related to promoting security, stability and peacebuilding in post-conflict contexts. It also investigates whether existing policies have been successful in preventing and holding individuals accountable for sexual exploitation and abuse.

Certainly, some countries are more notorious for their personnel perpetrating sexual exploitation and abuse than others – what are they doing wrong, or what are other countries, like Australia and New Zealand, doing right that they are less implicated in the phenomenon of sexual exploitation and abuse by interveners?

In 2016, we are conducting research with communities in East Timor, where sexual exploitation and abuse was relatively limited, and Bosnia-Herzegovina, where it was extensive. We are interviewing policy makers, practitioners and other professionals who were involved with the peace operations in BiH and East Timor, as well as civil society activists, local NGOs who have worked with communities or women affected by sexual exploitation and abuse, government officials, military and police personnel, and diplomats.

We are also holding focus-group discussions with community members about their perspectives on the impact of sexual exploitation and abuse on the relationship between local communities and the international community, and on the outcomes of the intervention. In addition, we will be conducting interviews with international organisations and their staff in New York and Geneva.

Outcomes of this research

Our project will generate new knowledge that has the potential to inform policy and legal reform processes and training programs both in Australia and globally. Our findings will be of relevance not only to the UN, but also to the range of international NGOs, and countries that contribute troops and personnel to UN peacekeeping operations. We will produce both academic and policy-oriented outputs.

Dr Jasmine-Kim Westendorf is a Lecturer in International Relations and a member of Transforming Human Societies Social, Economic and Political Change (SEPC) research cluster.

Read an outline of Dr Westendorf's project or download all the findings [PDF604KB].

Transforming Human Societies

Image credit: Flickr: Helmet and Flack Jackets of UN Peacekeepers. UN Photo/Marie Frechon.

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