Politics / Society / World News

A Wasp Nest? When UN peacekeepers turn into abusers

The UN peacekeeping force is not beyond reproach and it’s time to recognize it

by Marion Bouvier

UN blue helmets peacekeeping

Picture via hln.be

Never in my life have I been more shaken by a film than when I watched The Whistleblower. Knowing that the film is based on a real-life story only added to how durably sick I felt after learning about how low humanity can fall.

The Whistleblower tells the story of Kathryn Bolkovac, an American police officer who begins her assignment amongst United Nations peacekeepers in Bosnia in 1999 as a human rights investigator. Soon enough, she learns of a human trafficking network involving members of the peacekeeping corps (more precisely employees of DynCorp International, a military contractor for the US). As she starts investigating the horrific sex slave network, she also discovers that prominent members of the local UN office have been covering up the situation. In the film as in reality, Kathy (played by Rachel Weisz) proceeded to expose the network at the risk of putting her own life on the line.

Interestingly–but not surprisingly, the movie remained relatively low-profile[1], and the real events that inspired the film have scarcely been discussed in the media. One could obviously argue that the reason for this could be that the film itself is not ‘good enough’, yet it has been consistently well-rated[2]. It could also be argued that the subject it tackles is ‘too dark’ or ‘too depressing’, which is in itself a statement that we should give a closer look to.

In fact, the media gorges itself with gory stories (sometimes to the point of desensitization), and the fate of babies and children (rightfully) inspires many cries of outrage in the public opinion: in the case on which The Whistleblower is based, most of the girls sold as sex slaves (notably to male UN staff members and members of the UN-hired contractor firm DynCorp) were underage. Yet, there was little public outcry after the real-life story was out in the open, and the film (which was released a decade after the events) did not stir much of a debate on the abuses committed at the hand of the UN personnel.

So is there a scale of ‘depressing news’ according to which some events receive more coverage than others? One is tempted to say no, or at least to say there should not be one. But of course there is one: as some commentators pointed out recently, the death of Cecil The Lion provoked more of an outrage in the West than the deaths of thousands of people in Nigeria at the hands of Boko Haram. So one could say that there is a culturally-based scale of news representation which highlights certain tragedies more than others, depending on how the members of the cultural group in which the news are produced are perceived to be able to relate to the situation.

This cultural bias is not just correlated to physical distance, obviously, as can be seen in the case of Cecil The Lion. It also has to do with notions of perceived injustice and the degree and scope of the acceptance of death as a part of life: typically, the death of young ones is perceived as more dramatic than that of adults or older people, because of the innocence attributed to children and the sense of future that goes hand in hand with childhood. If we take the above examples, the killings performed by Boko Haram are widely seen as part of an infra-African geopolitical situation from which white, western people feel remote. The death of the lion was perceived within the context of a growing trend in the defense of animals rights (which in itself is of course perfectly justified); and somehow insidiously the idea that killing for sport, i.e. without reasons, seems to be more offensive than killing for, well, politico-religious reasons.

The Whistleblower Rachel Weisz Kathy scene

A still from the film The Whistleblower (Kondracki, 2010), with Rachel Weisz playing Kathy, the UN peacekeeper who uncovers a sex trafficking ring.

But the fact that this case of sex trafficking took place in Bosnia, right on the EU’s doorstep, and was nonetheless largely ignored cannot be so easily explained by cultural bias. Most of the young women used as sex slaves came from Ukraine and Russia, and the perpetrators of violence were overwhelmingly white, western, powerful men. Oh, but now we have maybe hit the very rock that can explain why the scandal was quickly buried under a thick layer of indifference. If white, powerful men acted in a horrifyingly cruel way in an organized network, within an organization promoting peace, then violence takes a new shape. White western civil servants and soldiers cannot be as easily demonized as religious terrorists can, they cannot be singled out as psychopathic individuals who committed murder because of insanity or because of an easily blamable social background.

Because what it then means is that these criminal people are like you and me, they could be your boss, your husband or wife, maybe the friend of a friend whom you know works in a prestigious international organization. Maybe it could even be your brother-in-law who serves as a peacekeeper and is the pride of the whole extended family.

What does the potential mental and social proximity of such “monsters” tell us?

That the monster can very well be within us, or within those we know. This is scary. Way scarier than looking at the news and seeing bodies torn by bombs in countries far away from our own. It also tells us a familiar story that we have heard since the beginning of civilization but that we keep re-enacting: power and money can corrupt the human soul, and so can a sentiment of impunity.

What also appears thinly veiled in this case is that sending people far away from their homes, extracted from the cocoon in which they were socialized, and especially in the context of war, can turn those familiar faces you know so well into the nameless monsters that you want to believe you will never know. Not that all soldiers or all peacekeepers prove to be murderers or feast on cruelty, far from that. But yes, this particular context fosters a higher potentiality towards violent behaviors[3]. And yes, there is a higher probability that, in this context so far remote from home, John or Jane may behave in ways that they themselves would never have deemed possible at home.

It often amazes me how strong public denial is whenever the question of contextual behaviors arises. Recently, two new sex scandals involving UN ‘blue helmets’ were exposed. In the first case, French peacekeeping troops in the Central African Republic were accused of sexually abusing young boys (as young as 9 years old) in exchange for food, during the UN Minusca mission in 2014; similarly to what had happened in Bosnia, UN officials tried to cover up the abuses until a whistleblower released classified information to the French authorities. The second case was revealed earlier this August as blue helmets allegedly raped a 12-year-old girl in Bangui (CAR), prompting UN General Secretary Ban Ki-Moon to order the resignation of Babacar Gaye, the UN peacekeeping chief in CAR.

Quite a few people commenting on the article[4] about these cases in Le Monde (one of the main French daily newspapers) as well as in other major newspapers were expressing incredulity and even outright refusal to believe that there could be “such a concentration of abusers” within the peacekeeping corps. Likewise, it is not rare to come across people who say that the (well-documented) cases of Catholic priests abusing young boys and girls are simply fabricated lies “because it is statistically too high an occurrence” if we compare the number of abusers with the total number of priests.

Babacar Gaye UN Minusca former chief UN peacekeeping

Former chief of the UN peacekeeping force in the CAR, Babacar Gaye, was dismissed in August, as more allegations of sex abuses committed by peacekeepers in the CAR have been made. Photo ©Issouf Sanogo / AFP

And that is precisely why we need to understand the concept of contextual behavior. In fact, most people grasp what psychologists talk about when they speak of the behavioral changes that affect the individual in a crowd. Every one of us has experienced it (which is also why we are more ready to understand the crowd factor than the war-context factor): you attend a football match and you and your fellow supporters start shouting encouragements and maybe end up insulting the opposite team with words so foul you would never use them with your neighbor in a “normal” situation. Or you are in a group of people who all display great enthusiasm at jumping naked in a frozen lake, and you surprise yourself by shedding all your clothes and join the seemingly harmless fun; you may well be slightly puzzled at your own behavior looking back at it once the excitement is over, but it seemed reasonable on the spur of the moment.

Well, believe it or not, soldiers or mercenaries working far away from home can behave in “monstrous” ways. That has notably-but not exclusively- to do with them working under a strong sense of discipline and hierarchy which can become stifling and oppressive, in non gender-mixed environment, as well as within a context that lacks an intricate social fabric to give a constructive framework to one’s actions. Similarly, priests are not naturally more prone to be abusers than laymen are, but they move within a social context that forces their emotional and sexual involvement to fit into a limited scope, in many ways akin to self-repression, which in turn gives rise to a higher probability of “deviant”[5] expressions of the self.

So, I am not saying that all soldiers and peacekeepers are abusers or will commit crimes involving civilians during their service. I am saying that it can happen, and it is also not surprising if it happens more often in those specific contexts than at home. I am also saying that we should not shy away from recognizing that even peacekeepers kindly sent by our governments to help other nations can commit crimes. That humans can fail, whoever they work for, and whichever laudable goal the organization they serve pursues. In fact, we have the duty to recognize that any employee and contractor we (or our governments) hire can be guilty of using their position of power to commit crimes even when the mission in which they take part is useful and beneficial to other citizens. It is not because there is a generally positive effect[6] to a peacekeeping mission that we should overlook individually or collectively committed offenses.

It does not help anyone to pretend that the world is black and white, that terrorists are all bad, mean, and ruthless people, but that on the other hand all UN personnel are good, friendly, and angelic people. Yes there are criminals within our own armies, our own peacekeeping force, our own churches. Yes it may be conceptually easier for us to imagine that men with long beards who behead innocent people in far away countries are inherently more cruel and terrible than our own good people; but no, I am sorry, these terrorists are no worse than these “good” peacekeepers who force boys and girls into prostitution, or who torture and traffic young women just because they have the power to do so.

So what should we do then? We should demand a strict enforcement of the zero-tolerance policy towards crimes and offenses committed by all national and international military personnel in duty. Ask international organizations to crack down on corruption at every level of their ranks, with the help of neutral observers. Demand that independent commissioners be appointed to review the work of the peacekeeping force and take abuse claims seriously. And bring to court every person suspected of having committed offenses in the course of their duties, regardless of their position within the hierarchy[7]. But also: ensure psychological and emotional follow-up for those who work on peacekeeping missions around the world.

For more on the fight against sex-trafficking in Bosnia and Kathryn Bolkovac’s work in the UN peacekeeping force, watch the lecture she gave at the Columbia Journalism School:


[1] It was initially distributed in 7 theaters throughout the US, and ended up grossing 1.1 million USD after a 12-week run.

[2] In fact, almost all of the film’s negative reviews were criticizing the depiction of violence, which was deemed “gritty and merciless” by film critique Ryan Rojas; other reviewers also thought that many scenes were too violent or shocking. But as pointed out by Rachel Weisz and Larisa Kondracki (the film’s director), the depiction of violence in the film was actually markedly toned down compared to what had happened in reality in Bosnia at that time. But it seems that according to some, showing real life violence is not OK and is just a device for the director to “win over fans” (in the words of Ryan Rojas), but when horrifying scenes of violence are shown in horror films or thrillers, it’s fine because we know it’s not based on real life. I call this attitude doing the ostrich.

[3] For more on that, read for example this article published by the ICRC: http://www.redcross.int/EN/mag/magazine2004_2/24-25.html

On the psychological and emotional consequences of war contexts on soldiers, read: http://www.armstrong.edu/initiatives/history_journal/history_journal_suffering_in_silence_psychological_disorders_and_soldiers_i

Also the very thorough book edited by George Fink called Stress of War, Conflict and Disaster (Academic Press, 2010); in particular Part VII, pp. 427-455.

[4] Disclaimer: I know that reading comments on the Internet-even if they are posted on a major respectable newspaper- is not always the sanest thing to do, but I believe it is however informative and it reflects a part of the public opinion that I see no point in ignoring altogether.

[5] I am reluctant to use the term deviant because of its moralizing connotation, and because of course the definition of deviance is culturally and socially constructed. I am talking of “deviant” behavior here with reference to an act that not only is contrary to the accept norm, but more importantly that is hurtful and nonconsensual.

[6] And in the case of UN missions, that can also be subject to discussion.

[7] This is all the more important since I have talked a lot about behaviors in which war contexts can be a factor in the rise of violent behaviors, but civil servants abroad have also been found guilty of sexual crimes on the local population. In this case it is more the impression of powerfulness and of impunity that should be explored if one seeks to understand the higher propensity to reprehensible acts.


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