The brutal face of peacekeeping

(This book review was first published in Business Standard.)

Peacekeeping is one of the main functions of the United Nations, an intergovernmental organization that was created to maintain international peace and security and to develop friendly relations among nations. The UN peacekeepers are civilian, military and police personnel drawn from member nations. Their stated mandate is to protect the most vulnerable while providing support to countries transitioning from conflict to peace.

Since peace is not simply the absence of war, and conflict cannot be reduced to its most visible manifestations in the form of physical violence, the transition is difficult to define. Peacekeepers have been deployed to perform a range of tasks. These include monitoring ceasefires, safeguarding the human rights of civilians, disarming ex-combatants, minimizing the risk of landmines, promoting the rule of law, and overseeing free and fair elections.

What are the power dynamics between peacekeepers from various cultural backgrounds sent to a conflict zone, and the locals they are supposed to protect? What institutional mechanisms are available to prevent abuse of power? What happens when people in charge of peacekeeping turn into perpetrators of violence? These questions are insightfully answered by Jasmine-Kim Westendorf in her new book Violating Peace: Sex, Aid and Peacekeeping, published by Cornell University Press.

The author is a senior lecturer in international relations at La Trobe University, Australia. She writes, “Despite over 15 years of policy development designed to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse and hold perpetrators to account, both civilian and uniformed personnel associated with peace operations continue to perpetrate it, and the impacts of such behaviours remain poorly understood.”

This is an image of the book cover. It shows a blue helmet with the word UN on it, and the word ‘peace’ appears with cracks.
This is an image of the book cover. It shows a blue helmet with the word UN on it, and the word ‘peace’ appears with cracks.

Westendorf rips off the facade that presents the UN as an organization committed to eliminating sexual violence. Her research makes it clear that the UN, which has formulated Sustainable Development Goals to end poverty, reduce inequality, and provide access to justice all over the world, has failed to address the damage caused by its own peacekeepers. Not all peacekeepers engage in such horrifying actions but those who do undermine peacebuilding efforts to assist countries recovering from civil wars.

Violating Peace: Sex, Aid and Peacekeeping is not easy to read. It contains graphic descriptions of sexual violence, which are utterly disturbing. Personal discretion is advised especially for readers who fear that it might trigger memories of traumatic events. However, those who aspire to a career in peacekeeping might benefit from a reality check about the ethical considerations of working in a field they might have previously approached with rose-tinted glasses.

Westendorf writes, “Italian peacekeepers allegedly ran child prostitution rings from their barracks in Sarajevo, while Ukrainian peacekeepers supplemented their small income by smuggling alcohol, contraband, and women and setting up a brothel that was largely patronized by other peacekeepers….in Somalia, Belgian soldiers allegedly bought a teenage girl as a birthday present for a paratrooper and forced her to perform a sexualized show and have sex with two soldiers.”

Apart from holding specific individuals accountable for their actions, it is important to understand the structures that enable violence and also ensure immunity from disciplinary action. That is a far more meaningful exercise than distinguishing between good and evil peacekeepers. Westendorf identifies that sexually violent behaviour is often linked to “the deliberate militarization of masculinity within armies as a training mechanism” and to “the normalization of sexual violence in peacekeepers’ home countries.”

Westendorf plunges into the murky depths of a system that is terribly flawed. The moral high ground that some countries speak from when they advocate for external intervention in a prolonged armed conflict stands exposed for its shallowness. The UN itself comes across as an organization whose legitimacy is compromised because it has tried to obscure information about the reporting of sexual violence, and formulated feeble responses to breach of protocols.

This book also invites readers to consider the question of consent in all its complexity in relation to gender as well as race. By discussing transactional sex, wherein food or money are offered in exchange for sex to people facing economic deprivation, it shows how blurred the lines are when it is a question of life and death. Does it make sense to ask if the consent was active, implied or enthusiastic? If someone is paid for a service, does that justify their humiliation? Why is sex work frowned upon?

Violating Peace: Sex, Aid and Peacekeeping explores these questions in depth. It combines scholarly research, analysis of primary documents and news reports with interview-based data collection. It examines cases from peace operations in the post–Cold War era, and offers lessons from field research conducted in Timor-Leste and Bosnia-Herzegovina as well as with the humanitarian community based in Geneva and the UN and diplomatic community in New York. It also shatters the perception that boys and men do not get raped.

Writer, educator and researcher

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