Dr. Nimmi Gowrinathan is a Professor at the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership.
Dr Kate Cronin-Furman is a research fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
Last month’s Associated Press (AP) report on the estimated 2,000 allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation by peacekeepers and United Nations personnel around the world wasn’t precisely breaking news. Allegations of serious misconduct directed by peacekeeping troops have dogged the UN for years. But the AP report contained several testimonies from the victims of Sri Lankan peacekeepers, who sexually abused and raped children during the UN Stabilisation Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), and these searing testimonies once again highlighted the cost of impunity for sexual violence by UN personnel.
Beyond a blemish on the reputation of the UN, these violations fuel a culture of violence that undermines the potential for sustainable peace.
Within the organisation, sexual violence by peacekeepers is treated with condemnation and, at most, re-location. The UN has no power to prosecute them for their crimes and the Status of Forces agreements (SOFA) that govern UN missions insulate peacekeepers from the criminal jurisdiction of the host country. As a result, the sole responsibility to provide accountability for the crimes of UN peacekeepers rests with their own governments.
In 2007, more than 100 Sri Lankan peacekeeping troops were sent back to their home country from Haiti in disgrace as a result of sexual abuse allegations. The Sri Lankan government promised to investigate and prosecute the guilty but it has not done so. While the Ministry of Defence has stated that 20 members of the contingent were subjected to disciplinary sanctions in 2009, no one has been prosecuted. And Sri Lankan troops have continued to deploy with UN peacekeeping missions in Haiti and elsewhere.
The focus on the appalling failure to prosecute these soldiers for their crimes obscures the fact that the issue is not just criminal violence on an individual level, but rather it emerges from entrenched political cultures that, intentionally, result in a collective failure to protect vulnerable people.
“Conflict-related sexual violence” is a major thematic focus for the UN. Yet, despite clearly qualifying under the requirement that it be “directly or indirectly linked (temporally, geographically or causally) to a conflict”, the sexual violence of peacekeepers is rarely understood to be tied to conflict dynamics. But peacekeepers are explicitly political actors.
Impunity beyond national borders
While peacekeeping missions are newly created forces, they are made up of national contingents that have been socialised in very particular rules of engagement, rooted in the particular underlying political agendas of their home country.
The Sri Lankan troops that deployed to Haiti were members of a military apparatus that had been fighting a brutal civil war for over two decades and was implicated in widespread and systematic human rights abuses. Arriving in Haiti, the Sri Lankan contingent brought with them a deeply entrenched culture of impunity for crimes against civilians.
Rape, in particular, became endemic as a form of political repression, and reprisal, over the course of the conflict between the Sri Lankan military and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). It was almost never prosecuted. Despite frequent reports of sexual violence during combat operations, and the routine commission of custodial rape against both women and men, Sri Lankan military personnel have been convicted for exactly one instance of wartime sexual violence: the 1996 gang rape and murder of Tamil schoolgirl Krishanthi Kumaraswamy. The default response of successive Sri Lankan regimes to allegations of military rape, and indeed all state-perpetrated human rights abuses, has been denial and, when pressed, window-dressing inquiries that lead nowhere.
In the final phases of the war in 2009, rights groups reported widespread sexual violence (rape, forced abortions, forced prostitution) of vulnerable populations amongst other alleged war crimes. While a few high-profile cases were covered in the local media, none resulted in convictions. Sri Lankan military forces, from rank and file cadre up to high-level commanders, are guaranteed protection from prosecution.
Carrying with them past crimes and heavy-handed tactics, peacekeepers are hardly the “neutral” incoming forces they are construed as. As they land, they also occupy a particular political space in their host country. Their function is to ensure stability and prevent the resurgence of violence; necessarily a status quo enforcing role. They are therefore tied, especially in the minds of aggrieved or marginalised populations, to the state’s political agenda. This means that the violence of peacekeepers is, in some senses, the violence of the state.
|If Sri Lanka’s participation in UN peacekeeping has proven anything, it is that abusive military cultures survive transplantation to new environments.|
Like Sri Lanka, Haiti’s civil strife over the past three decades has been marked by state-sanctioned rape, forced disappearances, and massacres of civilians – largely to quell political dissent and resistance. MINUSTAH bases, like those the Haitian children were reported as being forced into, are carefully placed in neighbourhoods whose resident have lived their entire lives under the shadow of state violence. To civilians in this area, rape at the hands of armed men is inevitable. In 2007, a Haitian woman interviewedconfirmed the depth of this militarised culture of violence. “(There is) no difference between the police and the gangs. They all have guns and they can do whatever they want,” she said.
State-perpetrated sexual violence places all its victims, but particularly women, in positions of extreme marginalisation. These victims often find themselves ostracised by their communities and at an increased risk of retribution by military forces. An under-recognised result of this violence is its impact on women’s political perceptions in ways that encourage identification with extremist, or violent, political movements.
In Haiti, before the arrival of the peacekeepers, the prevalence of rape had already created an urgent need for self-protection, and a deep disillusionment with the state, leading to a significant increase in women joining the armed gangs and vigilante groups driving pervasive violence. The sexual violence of peacekeepers, tied to both the protection failures and the violence of the state, has only exacerbated these dynamics. Rape by state military forces, as a political act, will always have a political impact. Rape by UN peacekeepers, often the last resort for protection, will leave in its wake even more willing recruits for armed groups.
If peacekeepers carry their politics with them to their host country, they don’t leave them there. As successive waves of Sri Lankan peacekeepers have returned home from Haiti, they have re-engaged in the ethnic conflict; first in combat roles, and then, following the end of the war in 2009, as part of the occupying force in northeast Sri Lanka. Several of the peacekeeping contingent’s leadership went on to positions of high authority in the Sri Lankan military, including brigade and division commander, and director of military intelligence.
These individuals have presided over a heavily militarised former conflict zone in which rape and sexual exploitation of vulnerable Tamil women, similar to that inflicted on the Haitian population, have been common. This violence undermines prospects for a lasting peace. From our post-conflict research in Sri Lanka, several interviewees noted that, “when people in the community think of the situation now of Tamil women, they think we have to resurrect the LTTE”.
Driving a resurgence of violence
Just a few weeks before the Sri Lankan troops were sent home in 2007, the contingent’s former second-in-command, Colonel Mahinda Weerasooriya, told a domestic newspaper that by participating in UN peacekeeping operations: “We have proven that the Sri Lankan army is not an army that violates human rights and we have proven that we are a well-disciplined army”.
Yet, if Sri Lanka’s participation in UN peacekeeping has proven anything, it is that abusive military cultures survive transplantation to new environments. Soldiers who exploit and abuse vulnerable populations at home will do so abroad as well – undermining the prospects for peace in both spaces. Peacekeeper violence has political impacts far beyond the creation of new victims.
While it is incontrovertible that peacekeepers who abuse civilian populations should be prosecuted for their crimes, these individual trials are not enough. Peacekeeper violence should be treated with the same seriousness as other types of conflict-related sexual violence. National contingents should be more thoroughly vetted before deployment, and stronger monitoring and disciplinary sanctions should be imposed to prevent and punish violations on the ground. Without these comprehensive measures, UN peacekeeping forces will not only fail in their mission to create the conditions for lasting peace, they will be one of the driving forces behind a resurgence of violence – wherever they go.
Dr. Nimmi Gowrinathan is a professor at the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership, where she is the Director of the Politics of Sexual Violence Initiative. Her work focuses on links between rape and radicalisation for marginalised women. She is the creator of The Female Fighter Series at Guernica Magazine, and has written for Foreign Affairs, Vice News, and Harper’s Magazine. More on her work can be found at www.deviarchy.com.
Dr Kate Cronin-Furman is human rights lawyer and political scientist. She is currently a postdoctoral fellow in the International Security Program at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Her work has appeared in the International Journal of Transitional Justice, The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog, The Atlantic, The National Interest, and The New York Times.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.
US Blockade Against Cuba Still in Place 55 Years Later
Many believe since U.S. and Cuba restored diplomatic relations, the blockade imposed on Cuba by the U.S. is over, but 55 years later, it remains in place.
But despite this economic blockade and an international campaign by the U.S. to isolate Cuba from the world arena by trying to deny it health equipment, financial transactions, and even cultural performances and sports competitions, the socialist nation has kept its head high and shown the world it can advance no matter what the obstacles.
After acknowledging that bullying Cuba for decades proved to be a bad and losing strategy and that, in fact, it had turned Latin America against the U.S., former President Barack Obama decided to announce a change in policy, reestablishing relations.
It was historic — well, sort of. International media had its story: U.S. citizens could now buy Cuban cigars and rum and bring them back home.
But, unfortunately, for the Cuban people, the blockade is far from over.
What did change?
During the last part of his second term in office, Obama announced he had begun negotiations with the Cuban government to reestablish diplomatic ties and begin the path to normalizing relations between the two countries.
The first step was easing travel restrictions for U.S. citizens by setting up a system of licenses under 12 categories that would allow those who met certain qualifications travel to Cuba, but many restrictions remained.
The government also reestablished commercial flights and allowed cruise ships to land in the island’s harbors. Tourists were no longer limited to only taking US$100 worth of Cuban cigars and rum back to the U.S.
Acknowledging Cuba’s top cancer research institutes, the U.S. also deregulated joint medical investigation and cooperation.
Then came the opening of an embassy in each country’s capital in 2014, the Cuban office in Washington, D.C., and the U.S. one in Havana.
By 2016, the State Department removed Cuba from a list of states that sponsor terrorism, where it had found itself since 1982.
The Department of Homeland Security ended the so-called ‘Wet-foot/Dry-foot’ immigration policy in January 2017, which was put in place more than 20 years ago. The Cuban government always maintained it was a provocation, encouraging illegal and risky migration by water and demanded its repeal.
The policy allowed only Cubans — no one else from any other country — who reach U.S. soil an expedited legal permanent residency and eventual U.S. citizenship.
What stayed the same?
The blockade. The blockade remains intact.
A picture of Obama in 2016 in a historic visit to Havana, in front of the famous Che Guevara portrait at Revolution Plaza, wasn’t enough to ensure Cubans that the hostile blockade would be lifted.
Obama assured Cuban President Raul Castro that the blockade would be lifted, but didn’t specify a timeline of when that might happen. Castro made it very clear that relations could never be normal until the U.S. ended the blockade – the largest commercial blockade in modern history.
Cuba has also called, time and again, on the U.S. to return the U.S. Navy-occupied territory of Guantanamo to the island and to respect Cuban sovereignty by halting all funding of anti-government groups and other organizations.
But then, at the end of 2016, Obama renewed the U.S. Trading with the Enemy Act, extending the blockade against Cuba for another year.
Under the current foreign policy in the U.S., Cuba can’t export or import from the U.S. Even if the island does acquire a permit to buy anything, the country is obligated to pay in advance and only in cash, in a different currency than dollars, and through bank institution from other countries.
Medicine imports are conditional on Cuba specifically detailing the final destination of medicine acquired, and once again it has to be done through third countries and in another currency.
U.S. companies that export machinery and equipment, services, or technical information that are key to providing drinking water for Cubans and equipping hospitals are also prohibited from doing business with Cuba.
The U.S. went even further and prohibited and threatened to sanction third countries if they sold products or services to the islands.
Several professional players and sports team have denounced barriers imposed by the U.S. government against their participation in seminars, competitions, and practices on U.S. soil.
U.S. citizens still can not use U.S. credit and debit cards while on the island and U.S. banks can not carry out any transactions to and from Cuba. The U.S. continues to limit the amount of money that individuals in the U.S. can send to families living in Cuba.
According to a report given by the Cuban government at the U.N. General Assembly, the U.S. blockade costs the island nation US$4.7 billion in 2016 and a staggering US$753.7 since it began almost six decades ago.
At the U.N. General Assembly, 191 of the 193 of the nations voted to condemn the blockade in 2016, as the majority have done for several decades. The difference in 2016 being that the U.S. and Israel abstained from voting for the first time since both nations have continuously voted against it.
Now with the Trump administration overturning many Obama-era acts, the likelihood of any more concessions from the U.S. are unlikely.
Rex Tillerson, the newly-appointed secretary of state and former ExxonMobil chief executive, said that he would reverse, or comprehensively review, Obama’s executive orders. The Republican majority in congress will most likely follow suit.
The international struggle will continue regardless, to finally end to what many world leaders have called a “criminal blockade.”
How Mainstream Media Got Venezuela’s 2014 Violence Wrong
Three years ago, 43 people were killed in right-wing violence in Caracas, Venezuela, in a carefully orchestrated campaign to oust the democratically-elected government of President Nicolas Maduro.
In an op-ed for the New York Times in March 2014, opposition figure Leopoldo Lopez claimed, “More than 1,500 protesters have been detained, more than 30 have been killed.” The newspaper had to issue a correction admitting the figure of 30 deaths “includes security forces and civilians, not only protesters,” but didn’t go into details. So what does the actual death toll look like?
Throughout the right-wing violence in early 2014, independent news collective Venezuelanalysis.com kept a detailed, running tally of who died, where and how. Around 20 deaths were deemed to have been directly caused by opposition violence or barricades. As Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting put it, “The presence of the protest barricades appears to be the most common cause of deaths: individuals shot while attempting to clear the opposition street blockades, automobile accidents caused by the presence of the barricades, and several incidents attributed to the opposition stringing razor wire across streets near the barricades.”
The 2014 BBC article, “What Lies Behind the Protests in Venezuela?” nicely summed up the Western media’s understanding of what sparked the unrest when it stated, “The protests began in early February in the western states of Tachira and Merida when students demanded increased security after a female student alleged she had been the victim of an attempted rape.”
This isn’t true.
The “protests” began in the first week of January 2014, when a few dozen masked individuals began barricading the main road outside the University of the Andes, burning tires. For the first week, the masked individuals drew no police attention and were left to block the street and harass passersby. Buses carrying residents of the working class barrios uphill from the ULA were forced back.
Without the buses, it became difficult to reach the city center from the barrios, and it was a common sight to see poor retirees slowly walking up the hill past the ULA, carrying their shopping in the tropical heat — while the “peaceful protesters” looked on. The protesters carried small arms, and weren’t afraid to draw them on anyone who complained. When the police began trying to clear the barricades, or “guarimbas,” the protesters would hide in the university and throw rocks. Once the officers left, they would quickly rebuild. This was the prototype of the kind of urban fighting that would be employed across Venezuela a month later.
The media failed to explain this and did not explain any of the context behind the “guarimbas”: oligarchy and business discontent with a revolution and national government that favored (and favors) the poor, the failed opposition coup in 2002 and many opposition electoral losses led to their desperately seeking other means to gain power.
As the unrest heated up in February, international human rights groups decried what they claimed was mass repression against peaceful protesters. On social media, photographs were proffered as evidence of widespread abuses. Most of the photos later turned out to be lifted from protests elsewhere in the world, such as Egypt, Ukraine and Yemen.
While the government has acknowledged numerous cases of misconduct by police and the national guard and condemned those allegedly responsible, the majority of security forces that did their jobs well were largely ignored. The hundreds of GNB personnel that spent weeks guarding social missions and media outlets while enduring verbal abuse and physical attacks from the right-wing, went largely ignored. This wasn’t an accident. As activist Luigino Bracci explained in February 2014, in an article published online, he said he regularly saw protesters in Caracas using a time-tested tactic of goading GNB troops for hours on end, filming their targets in a “coordinated effort.”
“If the guard makes a mistake and represses someone who is insulting him, in just minutes the video is doing the rounds on YouTube, it will be seen by millions of people and will form part of multimedia material that arrives at international chains such as CNN, NTN24, Caracol and others,” he explained.
Yet these brief snippets aren’t representative of the general conduct of the GNB. For example, in the second week of March 2014, El Nacional newspaper and opposition politicians spread a story of how the GNB supposedly repressed a peaceful protest in Lara state’s National Poli-Technical Experimental University. Luckily for the GNB involved, a local independent journalist filmed the entire confrontation. The video shows the GNB negotiating with the protesters before giving them a short workshop on human rights and releasing them.
While the media claimed the government was cracking down on free speech, the violent opposition attacked journalists. A VTV office in San Cristobal was attacked with Molotov cocktails and live ammunition, a community TV in Tachira was set on fire, as was a community radio station in Arapuey, Merida state. Journalists — public, community, and private — were attacked repeatedly in Plaza Altamira, Caracas, and the VTV offices in Caracas were basically under siege throughout February, March and April.