Media exposés of widespread rape and sexual violence always shock the public. But no accounts are more abhorrent than those of women and children trapped in armed conflicts – often homeless, hungry, weak and impoverished – whose elation at the arrival of a UN peacekeeping operation turns to horror.  From adolescent girls trafficked by UN peacekeepers to underground brothels in the former Yugoslavia, to refugees forced to provide sex for their food rations, and women and children violently raped in Haiti, Darfur, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the past two decades have brought stunning reports of sexual violence committed against defenseless civilians by the peacekeepers sent to shield them from more harm. The stories rarely end with justice served. Abuse by countless other sexual predators working in peacekeeping operations remain hidden. Annually, when the Secretary-General reports to Member States on the allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse documented during the previous year, he re-asserts the UN’s policy of ‘zero tolerance for sexual exploitation and abuse.’ And he concedes the problem is still at the crisis level.

The Probe

AIDS-Free World was prompted by three deep concerns to probe why such egregious violations of human rights, committed repeatedly by people paid by the UN to come to the aid of civilians in distress, should be so impossible to prevent and punish. Our first concern is for past victims, who have received neither help nor justice. Second, we are concerned about the health of the UN itself. If the current bureaucracy is unwilling and unable to root out criminal elements on its payroll who terrorize women and children, or unable to confront thousands of bystander-colleagues who can be bullied into silence and acceptance, then the current bureaucracy is incompetent or negligent. Third, we are concerned that these dangerous perpetrators and silent bystanders threaten the current effectiveness and future prospects of peacekeeping, which is among the noblest of humankind’s joint undertakings. The world will not continue to spend billions to deploy peacekeepers around the world if the UN can’t or won’t prevent those protectors from looking upon civilians as subhuman prey, or as collateral damage whose abuse and exploitation can be ignored.  

The Critical Questions

We probed, and came up with a long list of questions that governments aren’t asking. Why doesn’t the UN’s 2003 ‘zero tolerance’ policy work in practice? What is it about the way peacekeeping is managed that allows a minority of non-military and military peacekeepers to prey on civilians, escape the law, and place entire peacekeeping operations in jeopardy? Why is there so little attention to non-military peacekeepers employed directly by the UN – despite the fact that percentage-wise, as recently as 2014, there are more sexual abusers among them than among soldiers? What UN system-wide defect deters victims from coming forward and prevents peacekeepers who know about abuse from alerting the authorities? How is it possible that in peacekeeping missions around the world, such a consistently small percentage of ongoing criminal activity is reported, and so few cases that are reported result in arrests, prosecutions, or punishment?  Where does the obstruction of justice begin?



Our research, conducted with help from international experts on women, peace and security, human rights and the law, revealed a complex global operation beset by a web of problems, each of which needs attention if ‘zero tolerance’ is ever to be implemented. That seems overwhelming at first. But our investigations helpfully, encouragingly, diagnosed one deep, basic flaw at the heart of the problem of sexual exploitation and abuse. The crisis begins and always circles back to UN immunity, an important mechanism that has been misapplied in a way that was never intended.  We determined that UN peacekeeping is in cardiac arrest. It will take all available hands to resuscitate it. It’s time to call Code Blue.