Interview with Paula Donovan: Immunity, Sexual Scandals and Peacekeeping

This interview was published in the Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding, in a special edition on "Service, Sex and Security: Everyday Life in the Peacekeeping Economy."

Abstract: Dr. Nicolas Lemay-Hébert interviewed Paula Donovan, the co-founder and co-director with Stephen Lewis of AIDS-Free World, on 25 June 2015. AIDS-Free World is currently leading a campaign (named ‘Code Blue’) aiming at eliminating immunity for sexual violence committed by UN personnel. The organization is behind the leak to the Guardian newspaper of interviews by staff from the UN’s Office of the High Commission of Human Rights and UNICEF with alleged victims of sexual abuse by French, Chadian and Equatorial Guinean peacekeepers in the Central African Republic. Subsequently, the UN’s Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, decided to appoint an External Independent Review panel to look at the UN system’s failure to address sexual exploitation and abuse. (Photo:

You are leading the Code Blue campaign aiming at eliminating immunity for sexual violence committed by UN peacekeeping personnel. Can you tell us more about the genesis of the campaign and why AIDS-Free World has decided to address this specific issue?

Paula Donovan: AIDS-Free World obviously is an organization that we have started to deal with HIV and AIDS, and we go to the root causes of HIV and attempt to address the systemic failures—whether these are within government, other institutions or society in general—that lead to epidemics like HIV. We look at sexual violence because it is an enormous underlying cause of the spread of HIV, and also of the lack of access to appropriate treatment, care, testing, and support. These are all tied in together. It is our contention that if women and men were truly equal and had the same levels of autonomy over their sexual lives then HIV, that little weak virus HIV, would never have been able to grow into a serious epidemic, and certainly not into a pandemic. When you are dealing with the United Nations and other major multilateral and international institutions, sexual violence leads you automatically to the question of impunity, and so much of sexual violence happens within structures and environments when it is condoned or even aided and abetted from the very top. We have seen that in a number of cases, and I have taken on several things at AIDS-Free World that had to do with impunity for sexual violence. We have taken on the government of President Mugabe (ZANU-PF) in Zimbabwe for having orchestrated campaigns of rape in order to maintain his presidential power. That focus led me to look at sexual violence within the United Nations peacekeeping operations. It is so overt, so terribly obvious that there is something wrong with the UN system that claims to have zero tolerance for sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) and yet is compelled to report every year on a number of cases of sexual exploitation and abuse by people who are directly or indirectly under their command. That led me to analyse what can cause such a huge gap between the stated position of the United Nations and the actual implementation or fulfilment of its stated goal of achieving zero tolerance for sexual exploitation and abuse. That in turn led to the conclusion that basically it all gets down to immunity. Everything circles back to immunity conferred through the 1946 Convention on Privileges and Immunities [UN 1946] that is being misapplied to sexual exploitation and abuse.

Sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeeping personnel has been prevalent in most peacekeeping missions since the 1990s. Can you tell us more about the timing of this campaign?

P.D.: There are a million problems in the world that relate to sexual violence, and I guess this just seemed like it was a problem that was intractable for all the wrong reasons—not because it was unsolvable but because it persists for reasons of inertia. It is just a system that continues to operate the same way that it always has, and it expects different outcomes or improvements even though it is applying basically ineffective solutions to a broken system. I guess I have been aware of this for quite some time, but it got to the point where it just seemed intolerable that the status quo should have remained the same for decades and no one was really taking seriously the idea that the entire system is broken and needs to be fixed. So my tolerance for incremental improvements—or at least protestations that there have been incremental improvements every year—just wore out and I decided to look more deeply into it. At AIDS-Free World, we have decided to take it on as a campaign.

You have mentioned that ‘the peacekeeping crisis begins and always circles back to UN immunity’. In this fight against the misuse of immunity privilege, you seek to establish measures for addressing sexual offences by non-military personnel (international civil servants, police, experts on missions and staff from UN agencies supporting peacekeeping missions), but you leave out of the equation the military personnel (the actual ‘Blue Helmets’). Is this simply a recognition of the impossibility to modify the immunity status of military personnel? What can be done to address sexual offences by military personnel, who are after all a crucial component of any peacekeeping mission?

P.D.: It is certainly not a concession to the difficulty of the task, it is a first necessary step into the process. It is as fundamental as parents raising young children and telling them over and over again that ‘violence is a terrible thing’, that ‘you should never use violence’ and that ‘there will be a punishment if you are violent towards one another’, and then ‘if you hit your brother one more time I will smack you one’. The double standard and the illogic in that that the person who is supposed to be modelling good behaviour is actually exhibiting bad behaviour is evident in an exaggerated way when the United Nations Secretariat, which is supposed to be upholding the highest ideals of the UN, are actually committing the very abuses that they are instructing military peacekeepers not to ever commit. They are supposed to be enforcing the adherence to rules and regulations, they are publishing the documents, they are doing the anti-exploitation and abuse campaigns, they are creating the posters and going around and preaching, and then they are not practising what they are preaching. So the inherent illogic and futility of having a zero-tolerance policy that isn’t upheld by the very people who created and are now disseminating the policy or information about the policy, needs to be fixed first. Then we have looked carefully at the numbers and we realized that actually on a per capita basis the civilian UN peacekeeping personnel are reported much more often than the military personnel. So although a vast majority of what we know as peacekeepers are troops contributed by their countries, there are also thousands of civilian peacekeeping personnel who are on contract with the United Nations itself, and relative to their numbers, the civilians are reported for having committed far more of these abuses than soldiers. We figured that we can start with the inherent illogic and flaw in the UN system that doesn’t practise what it preaches and the double standard, and then once you have fixed that, you can move on. The system, once cleaned out and truly implementing the policy that it preaches, will be in a position of strength to enforce the policy with the troop-contributing countries.

Recent research on sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) by peacekeepers points to the fact that SEA goes beyond rape issues and the sexual scandals that have affected most peacekeeping missions since the 1990s. Arguably, sexual exploitation can include everyday acts of ‘abuse of authority’ by peacekeeping personnel (Jennings and Boas 2015). This is in turn shaped by the specific socioeconomic structure prevalent in peacekeeping missions, where peacekeepers form a privileged category of personnel often surrounded by poverty and destitution. For instance, the recent scandal in the Central African Republic includes ‘food for sex’ allegations, which is of course considered by everyone as part of the ‘sexual exploitation and abuse’ category. But what about the ‘MONUC babies’ (also known as ‘ONU Babies’ or ‘Thank You MONUC’) 1 —those babies born out of a union with UN personnel and left behind them by their fathers at the end of their assignment? How do you draw a line between what activities and practices can and should be included in the sexual abuse and exploitation category and which should not? What is or is not included in your working definition of sexual exploitation and abuse?

P.D.: The UN itself has drawn that line for us. They divide offences that are prohibited by the United Nations into category 1 and 2. They put sexual exploitation and abuse in categories 1, and sexual harassment of one staff member by another staff member for instance is in category 2. So sexual exploitation and abuse is by UN’s own definition in this whole category of prohibited behaviour, and when we are talking about peacekeepers, it essentially boils down to this: peacekeepers should never have any sort of sexual-related interactions with the civilian population in the country where they are operating. For the term of their contract, they are paid to do a job, and one of the basic tenets of the contract is that they will obviously not commit any crimes, that’s a given, and that they will not have any sex-related interactions whatsoever with people in the country to which they are sent, according to the rules and regulations of their employer. I don’t think that a line needs to be drawn that is any greater than that, it is quite clear. These are the terms of your employment and you either follow them and get paid, or you break them and you should be dismissed; and in the case of criminal behaviour, you break them and you should be prosecuted.

You use the number of 79 cases of sexual misconduct reported in 2014 against UN peacekeepers. What kind of sexual misconducts are included in this statistics? Does that include any form of sex-related interactions by peacekeepers with the local population?

P.D.: These are not our statistics, these are UN statistics. They gather the reports and they determine what the lines and what the parameters are for the behaviour that is going to be included each year in the Secretary General’s annual report to the General Assembly. They catalogue all the reports that come in and then in an annexe at the back of the report, they list the number of allegations—which is an important word that I will get to in a minute—of sexual exploitation and abuse and in some cases they define a little bit better per allegation and per peacekeeping mission. They define a little bit more closely what exactly the person or persons have been accused of. In general, all sexual exploitation and abuse can be included in these allegations, and they don’t delineate or disaggregate what the sexual exploitation and abuse allegations are. Let me explain this problematic word of allegation. The UN says that in 2014 there were 79 allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse against peacekeeping personnel. That’s military and non-military combined. The word allegation is an absurd non-indicator. It appears nowhere else in crime statistics, or in the collection of official government or United Nations data. Just as an example: if you were collecting information about rumours of measles epidemics, and you said this year we had three allegations of measles epidemics in the world, and last year we had seven, so we are really winning the fight against measles. Well the three allegations of measles this year may have been an epidemic that killed 9,000 children, another epidemic that killed three children, and a third epidemic that killed 90,000 children. Last year, the seven epidemics might have killed one child each. So it’s like saying we are doing much better because we have fewer epidemics this year than we did last year. But you don’t measure measles by number of epidemics; you count the number of individual cases involved. In the case of sexual exploitation and abuse, one allegation can include 23 soldiers in the Central African Republic and 15 minors that they have been demanding sex from, or it can be one soldier and one minor, or it can be one soldier that has abused the same child over the course of a year twiceweekly. So allegation is a completely useless, meaningless term, and yet it is the indicator, it is this pretend measurement that the UN uses to demonstrate progress year on year. So they will say this year we have 79 cases of allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse, and it is an improvement over last year which saw X number of cases of allegations. But these numbers are numbers of allegations, which is like counting epidemics.

And there is also the problem of underreporting that is always present in these statistics …

P.D.: That’s right. There is a huge problem of underreporting which the UN sort of acknowledges—they give it an honourable mention in their reports—but it is a rampant problem in UN peacekeeping missions because the main deterrents for reporting sexual abuse are present everywhere in the world, but are exaggerated when we talk about peacekeepers. There is this pervasive notion that it is entirely useless to report anyone associated with the UN for any kind of abuse because nothing will happen to them. So basically, there is a pervasive feeling that since they are never punished, this must be okay for them to be doing this thing. The UN must think that it is alright for their soldiers and their civilian peacekeepers to behave this way.

The acronym of the United Nations Transitional Administration in Cambodia (UNTAC) was derided as the ‘United Nations Transmission of AIDS to Cambodia’ by certain local actors. For instance Cambodia’s Prime Minister, Hun Sen, at one point claimed that the only thing the UN left behind in Cambodia was the AIDS disease. This specific claim has been disputed by recent research, but given the link between AIDS Free World’s original goal (to speak up for and with people affected by HIV and AIDS) and the current Code Blue campaign, have you noticed a connection between sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeepers and HIV/AIDS infection rates in host societies?

P.D.: It is an unfortunate misunderstanding that hasn’t been well clarified by the people who are leading the struggle against HIV, including the UN, that the connection between sexual violence and HIV is not always a direct causal relationship. HIV is a very weak virus. The number of sexual encounters that the average person needs to have with an HIV-positive person before contracting HIV is quite high. It is not necessarily the case that you can look at the number of peacekeepers who are HIV-positive and the surrounding population and draw a direct cause-and-effect relationship between sexual encounter between a peacekeeper and a civilian, and that civilian’s HIV status. It is simply not the case. The reality is that a pervasive culture of sexual abuse lays the groundwork for HIV epidemics in a community. If you are a victim of sexual abuse, you are far more likely to contract a sexually transmitted infection of any kind. Sexually transmitted infections then make you extraordinarily vulnerable to the HIV. Let’s take a peacekeeper who is HIV-positive and rapes a woman, and let’s say that this woman doesn’t contract HIV from that peacekeeper in that moment. She is now a victim of rape and she is now more susceptible to HIV than her counterpart who is not raped for several reasons. First, the very act of rape, the emotional and psychological effects of sexual violence, will have an impact on the individual’s subsequent behaviours, which may include depression, low self-esteem, very poor health-seeking behaviour, a difficulty in focus and concentration, and to maintaining adherence to the use of barrier methods like condoms, and to contraception. The effects of sexual violence, whether or not rapists are HIV-positive, can have a profound effect on victims’ future sexual interactions and make them more susceptible to HIV infection. That’s number one. Number two, if the rapist is in fact HIV-positive and it is a violent sexual encounter, then the violence of that interaction causes a much higher likelihood that the abuser’s HIV will be transmitted. HIV enters the body through cuts and bruises much more easily than it does during the normal course of sexual intercourse. Peacekeeping personnel have lots of money and the local populations don’t, so survival sex is a phenomenon that grows up around every peacekeeping mission, unfortunately. People need to eat, need to feed their children, need to survive. Peacekeeping missions are a magnet for transactional sex and this often turns quite violent. Obviously the peacekeepers have all the power. They are the ones with the money and the guns in most cases, and they are the ones with the most authority over the transaction itself. This just sets the stage for an environment where women and children are demeaned, exploited, abused, coerced, and just treated in a subhuman way, and the peacekeeping personnel are sending a message throughout the peacekeeping mission and to the entire male community that this is an appropriate and at least an allowable way to treat the female and underaged population. If it doesn’t introduce sexual violence, sexual abuse and exploitation towards the more vulnerable members of society, it certainly exacerbates it. All of these factors create this tremendously fertile ground in which an HIV epidemic can take hold.

You have worked as a UN insider before deciding to jump into the world of advocacy, notably serving as UNICEF regional adviser on HIV/AIDS for eastern and southern Africa, as UNIFEM’s [United Nations Development Fund for Africa-wide gender and AIDS adviser. Gender considerations have been an integral part of your work throughout your career. What are the reasons that made you believe that you would be more effective outside the UN system than someone promoting change inside the system?

P.D.: The first answer is that experience taught me that. I was certainly an advocate, and was outspoken from the moment I joined UNICEF in the late 1980s and attempted to change the parts of the system that I thought required change from the inside. There were varying degrees of success, and certainly not a huge system-wide revolutionary success, but along with like-minded colleagues, we were able to make some changes from the inside. After leaving UNICEF, when I spent one year at UNIFEM, that’s when I saw that the entire system, the architecture of the UN and how it deals with women’s issues absolutely had to change. I attempted to advocate from within UNIFEM to encourage my other colleagues to see the incredible diminution of women and women’s issues that was apparent through the very structure of the United Nations. UNIFEM was a little department within the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and it was pretending, and the UN and the world pretended, that it was a full-fledged agency representing all the world’s women, and we knew it wasn’t the case. It had a miniscule budget, and different rules and regulations. Whereas my colleagues from UNICEF could fly business class, the women from UNIFEM were told to fly economy class because the overall budget was too small to allow UNIFEM staff to take advantage of UN travel entitlements, and still attend as many important meetings as our other UN colleagues. So you have got that gender inequality built right into the UN. I attempted to change that from the inside and had no luck. I then left the official UN and went to work, paid by the Harvard School of Public Health, as an adviser to the Special Envoy for AIDS in Africa, Stephen Lewis, with whom I had worked at UNICEF. He was being very outspoken about HIV; he was using his special envoy position to be constructively critical without any compunction. He was telling the United Nations just exactly what they were doing wrong and what they needed to do differently, and he was getting a lot of support both from UN staff on the ground who were dealing with AIDS and were often frustrated by parts of the system that weren’t working and by governments. I worked with him until the end of 2006 when he was encouraged to step down because Kofi Annan was leaving and the people inside the UN didn’t think Ban Ki-Moon would be able to tolerate such an outspoken inside critic. So Stephen Lewis was encouraged to say ‘my five years are up’, and there was an outcry, especially from Africa, thinking they had an inside voice that they could rely on and someone who could bring concerns to the decision makers at the UN. Whether it was people from the civil society or staff in field offices within the United Nations, there was sort of a dismay that Stephen was leaving that role. So we decided that together we would continue that outspoken role, working on HIV but not exclusively, critiquing the United Nations but also all the institutions that should be addressing HIV, and started an organization together. We started AIDS-Free World and we became more and more vocal when we realized that our knowledge of the system from the inside was incredibly helpful to change what was broken about the system. We were aware of things that people can’t see when looking at the UN from the outside. But also we had absolutely no inhibitions. We weren’t confined at all by what we could say or do. We had a great deal more success on changing the UN from the outside than the inside, including the very first thing that we took up which was to create a true, full-fledged women’s agency—UN Women.

Following the Anders Kompass story,2 do you believe the recent announcement of an external independent review, to be led by Ms. Marie Deschamps of Canada, to examine the events following the sexual abuse of children in the Central African Republic is a game changer? What are your expectations of this review truly changing the culture of impunity inside the UN?

P.D.: I think that every single thing about the UN is a process. There are no game changers that happen overnight. That’s a good thing. We don’t want rash, immediate, ill-conceived or poorly thought through revolutionary changes. We are talking about the world’s biggest cooperative effort, with 193 member states. That said, I think that what has happened over the past several months—and I don’t want to sound as though AIDS-Free World was single-handedly responsible for this—is that we identified and were able to take advantage of a point in time. Through the combination of our refusal to pull our punches and our analysis of the peacekeeping situation, we were able to pull this together at just the right time and went forward with the Code Blue campaign. The fact that we were about to launch the campaign caused people to leak documents about the Central African Republic to us, which we were able to make public. Everything came to a head at one point, during April and May 2015, and we pushed it to a point, so in that way the game did change and changed very quickly. Suddenly, things were exposed within a system that is very secretive. Member states really became incensed that the Secretariat that is supposed to report to them was actually manipulating them and lying to them, and breaking the law and doing all sorts of things behind the backs of member states. Nothing captures the attention and provokes the disgust of the public the way that sexual violence against young children does. And especially incredibly vulnerable homeless children, the poorest kids in a war-affected country. So all these things converged, and we forced the convergence, and that led to step 1 on the goal of the Code Blue campaign, which is that external independent review. I am not certain this will fix the problem of impunity, and that impunity will be gone after the ten-week period after which the external panel will complete its investigation. I am certain that things will be exposed, and will be better, and we will be that much closer to a resolution. I don’t think the UN can ever go back to the way it was just five or six months ago, because now the cat is out of the bag. I think that the world is fortunate that the person they chose to chair this panel is someone who will really pursue the job with knowledge and with energy. That is based on the report that she just tabled about the Canadian military sexual abuse problem. She didn’t pull back at all when she chaired that commission. Her experience as a Supreme Court judge I think is terrific. It’s my feeling that these panels that are commissioned by the Secretary-General often just fall flat because they are filled with people who don’t really pay attention, or who drag the work on and on and pay attention sporadically. Or more often than not, they are people who want future UN appointments and so they don’t want to dig too deeply and find out too many problems. They don’t want to have any kind of report that would be so critical that the Secretary General or the UN system would say, don’t ever hire that person again, we don’t want to be called to. I think that in the chair, they have found someone who is truly external, truly independent, won’t be shy about getting to the bottom of the problems. I do think that it is a first step, though, and it will definitely have to be followed by additional steps. So much wrongdoing, so much corruption, so much collusion, and so much unbelievable behaviour and negligence came to light in this one case, this one scandal in the Central African Republic, that there is no way that a single ten-week investigation review could ever unearth it all, and address it all. However, it is an incredibly important first step.

How do you see peacekeeping evolving in the next few years? Do you believe for instance in the realistic prospects of a more culturally sensitive peacekeeping?

P.D.: You know, Nick, I am not an expert on peacekeeping really. I am taking the perspective of a women’s rights activist looking at any hyper-masculine group of people with lots of power and authority moving into places where vulnerable people are depending on them, and where they are abusing and exploiting them sexually. These could be peacekeepers, but it could be any other group. So I am not really in a position to predict what peacekeeping might look like in the future, but I can only possibly venture a guess about whether or not sexual exploitation and abuse will be as dominant a theme and problem in the future as it is today. To that I would say that I don’t think we are ever going to go backwards now. There are too many people who are aware and concerned to allow this to continue, and are now ready to hear what proponents of women’s rights, and experts in everything from gender to the militarization of populations, have been saying for decades. I have to imagine that the notion that you can take soldiers trained to kill and dehumanize—trained to view and to treat the people in the countries to which they're deployed as sub-humans so that they will feel ethically and morally okay shooting and killing them—and transforming them overnight into benevolent peacekeepers who are there to help; I have to imagine that this unrealistic notion will have to change.

Paula Donovan is co-founder and co-director (with Stephen Lewis) of AIDS-Free World, Uniondale, NY, USA.


  1. MONUC stands for Mission de l’Organisation de Nations Unies en République Démocratique du Congo or the United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It was renamed MONUSCO (United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo) in 2010.
  2. For a background on this story, see: Laville (2015); AIDS-Free World (2015). References AIDS-Free World. 2015. “The UN’s Dirty Secret: The Untold Story of Anders Kompass and Peacekeeper Sex Abuse in the Central African Republic.” Accessed May 29. http://
  3. Laville, Sandra. 2015. “UN Aid Worker Suspended for Leaking Report on Child Abuse by French Troops.” The Guardian, April 29. apr/29/un-aid-worker-suspended-leaking-report-child-abuse-french-troops-car
  4. Kathleen Jennings and Morten Boas. 2015. “Transactions and Interactions: Everyday Life in the Peacekeeping Economy.” Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding 9 (3). doi:10. 1080/17502977.2015.1070022.
  5. UN. 1946. Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations. New York, February 13.

(To cite the article: Paula Donovan (2015). JISB Interview: Immunity, Sexual Scandals and Peacekeeping. Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding, 9:3, 408-417)