New ICAI review: Sexual exploitation and abuse by international peacekeepers

30 Sep 2020

The UK’s “leading” work to tackle the widespread problem of sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) by international peacekeepers is relevant and important, but could be strengthened with more focus on survivors and a stronger approach to learning, a new review from the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) has found.

The report – a companion paper to ICAI’s earlier review of the government’s Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative (PSVI) published in January – examines the “culture of impunity” that means SEA by peacekeepers, including soldiers, police and civilian personnel, has become a persistent problem in international peacekeeping missions around the world.

ICAI found that the UK government has been a leading voice in tackling the problem, raising awareness internationally of the standards expected of troops, and funding small-scale aid projects designed primarily to drive forward UN reform. However, there was limited evidence that this work had led to reductions in SEA, and there had not been enough focus on working with survivors and vulnerable communities.

As the report covers relatively limited investments in which results are difficult to measure, the review is not scored, but it makes two recommendations for the UK government. The aid watchdog is due to carry out a separate review of safeguarding against SEA in the aid sector, beyond international peacekeeping contexts, next year.

ICAI Chief Commissioner Dr Tamsyn Barton said: “The UK’s efforts in this area have been prominent compared to other member states, and its achievements – supporting the UN in tackling the issue, training troops and ensuring that civilian UN staff who commit these crimes cannot simply move from post to post within the UN system – are important and useful.

“But with survivors facing significant and daunting barriers to obtaining justice, there should be a greater focus on their needs, and the government should do more to link up its learning on ‘what works’ across all forms of conflict-related sexual violence, in order to build an integrated body of evidence that all departments can use. These steps would help the UK to have more impact in tackling this persistent and widespread problem.”

ICAI’s report looks at work by the former Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the Ministry of Defence (MOD) to address SEA. Legal and practical barriers, such as peacekeepers being immune from prosecution by the country in which they are based and different legal standards across countries, mean that effective investigation is difficult and prosecutions are infrequent.

Between 2014 and 2019, the UK spent around £3.8 million of aid helping to improve the UN’s efforts to tackle SEA, strengthening its capacity to prevent and respond through policy reform and improved disciplinary procedures. This included funding dedicated UN staff positions; helping to promote the UN Secretary-General’s voluntary compact on SEA, which by last September had 103 member state signatures; using the UK’s role on the UN Security Council to ensure that mandates for peacekeeping missions included provisions on protecting women and children; and developing “No Excuse” cards for international peacekeeping troops to carry at all times, setting out the standards expected of them. UK aid funding also contributed to a UN-wide “Clear Check” system for tracking SEA allegations against UN staff, ensuring that those dismissed for violations are no longer able to take up new jobs within the UN system.

Additional funding was spent by the MOD’s British Peace Support Team (BPST) to train more than 10,000 peacekeeping troops each year, with soldiers taught how to identify, report and prevent SEA. ICAI said that these efforts to train peacekeepers showed “promise”, but it noted that BPST did not track trends in SEA reporting once troops had been deployed and did not gather evidence of long-term changes in practice. Although measuring results in the form of cultural and behavioural changes towards SEA was difficult, the lack of evidence on longer-term change meant that it was “impossible” to gauge the impact of the training, and there was no evidence yet of a reduction in cases of SEA in peacekeeping. ICAI also highlighted that there had not been a structured approach to learning and filling in evidence gaps of “what works”.

In addition, although the UN had recognised the need to support survivors, ICAI said that the UK’s work with survivors of SEA in peacekeeping contexts had been limited, amounting to a small but expanding grassroots prevention project, a 13-country mapping initiative, and some funding that indirectly supported survivors. ICAI added that so far the UK had not contributed to a UN fund to provide economic support to survivors.

ICAI recommended that the UK government should aim for closer integration and sharing of learning between its efforts to tackle SEA in peacekeeping contexts and its wider work on conflict-related sexual violence, and that efforts to improve discipline among peacekeeping personnel should be balanced with measures to promote the interests of survivors.

The review was the second part of ICAI’s joint review of the UK’s efforts to tackle conflict-related sexual violence. With SEA in peacekeeping being treated as a separate issue by both the UN and the UK, a decision was taken to release the report in two parts.

Read the review here.

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