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  • Human Rights Research Center

UN Peacekeepers: Crimes of Sexual Abuse and Exploitation

April 4, 2024


United Nations (UN) peacekeeping forces were established in the late 1940s, with their inaugural mission deployment occurring in 1948. The role of a peacekeeper is to maintain peace and security, facilitate political processes, protect civilians, assist in disarmament, support constitutional processes, and protect and promote human rights. While peacekeeping missions have historically seen success since their inception, instances of peacekeepers committing crimes against the vulnerable populations they are meant to protect began to surface in the late 1990s (Kanetake, 2012). Crimes of sexual abuse and exploitation are particularly challenging to hold peacekeepers accountable for, and as a result these crimes are the most common. This article explores the historical accountability of UN peacekeepers and offers recommendations to mitigate abuse and enhance accountability. Without accountability, peacekeepers will continue to abuse their power. [1]


Background Information


Due to the increase of crimes committed by peacekeepers, several legal frameworks and policies have been created in an effort to get justice for the victims and curb the number of crimes. In 2003, the UN established a zero tolerance policy towards sexual abuse and exploitation. Despite the creation of this policy and many others, it has done little to curb the reports of sexual abuse and exploitation occurring in UN peacekeeping operations. While there are clear UN policies, procedures, and international legal obligations to counter exploitation, there is a lack of implementation (Spencer, 2005). The zero tolerance policy can be understood as the UN’s attempt to resolve discordance between political and legal lines that separate the UN from non-UN elements (Kanetake, 2012). Another policy intended to curb some of these violations is the 1325 Resolution proposed by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) which calls for the prosecution of crimes against women, increased protection of women and girls during war, and the appointment of more women to UN peacekeeping operations (Cohn et al., 2004). The resolution has filled a gap in international peacekeeping and is held back by the UN’s inability to place it into a comprehensive framework (Binder et al., 2008). Evidence shows that the resolution has made little impact in conflict-affected countries.

Furthermore, the UN is constrained by primarily two legal frameworks: the Status of Force Agreements (SOFAs) and the Memorandum of Understanding (MOUs). These frameworks give troop-contributing countries jurisdiction over its own military personnel and responsibility for addressing troop misconduct. The lack of guidance surrounding the legal framework within which the UN expects its peacekeeping missions to act, particularly when using force for protective purposes, contributes to a fatal ambiguity about the tasks involved (Foley, 2016). This poses a significant issue, without states contributing troops, there would not be any peacekeeping forces, and changing these frameworks might reduce the already small number of peacekeeping troops. There are two main categories of peacekeeping personnel: civilian and military, each category with their own laws. Civilian personnel can be prosecuted under domestic criminal law whereas military personnel are prosecuted under their own military court.




Below, I’ve included data provided by the United Nations: Conduct in UN Field Missions on Sexual Exploitation and Abuse Report. This report provides data on allegations against peacekeepers from the past thirteen years. Figure 1 breaks down the status and outcomes of investigations by year. The UN has categorized its investigations into several distinct categories. ‘Substantiated’ means that an allegation has been proven through an investigation. ‘Unsubstantiated’ means that an allegation has either been disproven or there is insufficient evidence to prove the allegation. While ‘pending’ means that the investigation is still ongoing and ‘other’ means that an investigation has been recorded ‘for information’. Figure 1 shows that most investigations fall within the substantiated or unsubstantiated category. While there are still some cases that are pending from 2015 to present day, it seems that most allegations are investigated. The backlog of investigations displayed below may be attributed to a lack of resources. There are a substantial number of pending cases from 2016 to the present day.

Figure 2 demonstrates the different actions taken by national governments and the UN. Some governments are holding the UN peacekeepers accountable with actions including jail time or dismissal. There are very few cases where no action was taken by national governments and a large number of cases are still pending. Additionally, the UN has repatriated perpetrators back to their home countries with very few cases pending which is what is demanded of the UN by the legal frameworks in place. Referring back to Figure 1, there have been over 250 reported substantiated cases over the past twelve years and only 105 cases have resulted in jail time by national governments. Some of this can be explained by the amount of pending cases. Additionally, accountability of crimes committed by peacekeepers have taken place, but most substantiated cases are not prosecuted by national governments. 

Figure 3 below demonstrates the number of allegations over the past fifteen years. Overall, the number of allegations has remained steady with the lowest recorded year in 2014 with 52 allegations. Overall, the number of allegations recorded has decreased since reporting began. In 2007, the number of allegations was the highest recorded and has yet to be surpassed.

Policy Recommendations


There are several policies that I recommend the UN should take in order to address some of the issues they have had with peacekeeping forces and violations. These policies include adjusting immunity for peacekeepers, developing strategies for reporting and investigation of allegations, and the inclusion of more women into peacekeeping missions. The immunity granted to peacekeepers has enabled them to evade accountability for their crimes. As mentioned before, the SOFAs and MOUs frameworks give troop-contributing countries jurisdiction over their own military personnel and responsibility for addressing troop misconduct; however, the persistence of human rights violations demonstrates that the commission's efficacy has been minimal and that it has not led to any changes in the behavior of UN soldiers (Halling and Bookey, 2008). There are some issues with removing this immunity. Several developed states like the US have threatened to pull troops out if the immunity laws are revised (Spencer, 2005). Instead, I suggest that the UN should try to clarify the legal frameworks that are in place. There seems to be a lack of guidance and ambiguity regarding these frameworks.


Improvements on Investigations and Reporting


Inadequate reporting and investigations have often allowed peacekeepers from being held accountable. An independent investigative body should be created to monitor each individual peacekeeping operation. Any allegations of abuse or exploitation should be reported to this body. This would also help with some of the backlog of older pending cases that have yet to be investigated (seen in Figure 1). Currently, the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) has instituted Conduct and Discipline Teams (CDTs) on most missions which receive and assess sexual exploitation complaints (Defeis, 2008). Reporting procedures within the UN are often unclear to those living in post-conflict areas. The local communities where peacekeeping missions are operating should know all the avenues of reporting available to them. This could be provided by spreading information in local languages by radio on local stations, alongside working with the local community.


Increase of women serving in peacekeeping forces


Conventional wisdom supports that the inclusion of more women into peacekeeping forces will be the answer in preventing future allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation (Simić, 2010). The inclusion of more women within these missions may alter the perception and willingness to engage with peacekeepers on the part of elements of the local population, most notably women (Mazurana, 2003). Even though the number of female peacekeepers has increased in recent years, the levels still remain very low. Resolutions have been passed for the inclusion of more women to serve in several departments in peacekeeping missions. Additionally, there are some responsibilities that women in most cases perform better than male officers. For example, sexual assault and child abuse cases where the victims (usually women) feel more comfortable, culturally and emotionally, dealing with a female officer (Defeis, 2008).

The UN Security Council (2242) called for doubling the number of women in uniformed components of peace operations by 2028 (United Nations, 2015). It aims to have at least 25 percent of women as military personnel and officers by 2028.  In addition to augmenting the number of women serving in peacekeeping missions, the DPKO should strive to elevate the representation of women in senior-level positions. Mazurana (2003) finds that the absence of military women in senior DPKO positions prevents them from being involved in the highest levels of the UN. Some scholars have argued that diverting responsibility to women does not address the problem of sexual violence in peacekeeping operations or help eradicate its causes.



There are many factors that have allowed UN peacekeepers from facing justice. Overall, it seems that most allegations against UN peacekeepers are investigated. In accordance with the legal frameworks within the UN, it is up to the government who provides the peacekeeper to determine the punishment. The only action that the UN can take is repatriation to the country of origin of the peacekeeper. The data provided by the UN shows that there are several actions taken by national governments. Some of these actions include jail time, dismissals, and demotion. Despite these actions, it seems that prosecution has not deterred peacekeepers from committing these violations. Certain violations, such as fatal incidents, are more likely to be subject to accountability measures than others. For example, violations including sexual abuse and exploitation are harder to track and investigate. Even though national governments and the UN are acting within their means in regard to holding peacekeepers accountable, the ongoing violations have the potential to discredit the UN and should be addressed promptly.

[1] Special thanks to Dr. Arfi; through his guidance and invaluable knowledge this article would not have been made possible. This article is a shortened and modified version of a paper that I wrote in his International Organization seminar at the University of Florida.



  • Ambiguity- Doubtfulness or uncertainty of meaning or intention.

  • CDTs- Conduct and Discipline Teams

  • Discordance- Lack of agreement

  • DPKO- The UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations

  • Immunity- Protection or exemption from an obligation or penalty.

  • Jurisdiction- The official power to make legal decisions and judgments.

  • MOUs- the Memoranda of Understanding

  • Peacekeeper- A person who tries to keep or maintain peace, especially a member of a force or organization that actively works to stop or prevent conflict between nations or communities.

  • Repatriate- To restore or return to the country of origin, allegiance, or citizenship.

  • SOFAs- The Status of Force Agreements

  • UN- United Nations

  • UNSC- United Nations Security Council



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  2. Cohn, Carol, et al. “Women, Peace and Security Resolution 1325.” International Feminist Journal of Politics, vol. 6, no. 1, 2004, pp. 130–140.,

  3. Defeis, Elizabeth. “U.N. Peacekeepers and Sexual Abuse and Exploitation: An End to Impunity.” Washington University Global Studies Law Review, vol. 7, no. 2, 2008, pp. 185–212.

  4. Foley, Conor. “The Human Rights Obligations of UN Peacekeepers.” Global Responsibility to Protect, vol. 8, no. 4, 2016, pp. 431–450.,

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  6. Halling, Matt, and Blaine Bookey. “Peacekeeping in Name Alone: Accountability for the United Nations in Haiti.” Hastings International and Comparative Law Review, vol. 31, 2008.

  7. Kanetake, Machiko. “The UN Zero Tolerance Policy’s Whereabouts: On the Discordance between Politics and Law on the Internal-External Divide.” Amsterdam Law Forum, vol. 4, no. 4, 2012, p. 51., https://doi:10.37974/alf.235.

  8. Mazurana, Dyan. “Do Women Matter in Peacekeeping? Women in Police, Military and Civilian Peacekeeping.” Canadian Woman Studies, vol. 22, no. 2, 2003.

  9. Simić, Olivera. “Does the presence of women really matter? towards combating male sexual violence in peacekeeping operations.” International Peacekeeping, vol. 17, no. 2, Apr. 2010, pp. 188–199,

  10. Spencer, Sarah. “Making Peace: Preventing and Responding to Sexual Exploitation by United Nations Peacekeepers.” Journal of Public and International Affairs, vol. 16, 2005, pp. 166–179.

  11. United Nations. “Security Council Unanimously Adopts Resolution 2242 (2015) to Improve Implementation of Landmark Text on Women, Peace, Security Agenda | Meetings

  12. United Nations. “Sexual Exploitation and Abuse.” Conduct in UN Field Missions, 4 Nov. 2021,


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