For Bangladesh’s global image, January 2016 was not a good month. Allegations of sexual abuse by Bangladeshi peacekeepers stationed in African countries have hushed the nation into a shocked, shamed, uneasy silence. The abuses allegedly took place in 2014, mostly near a camp for displaced people.
The Government of Bangladesh deserves a round of applause for instantly launching an investigation. On the other hand, three African countries failed to undertake any such measures and had the UN taking up investigations on their behalf. Bangladesh has been saved from that fate. Assistant Director of Inter Service Public Relations (ISPR) Directorate, Md. Noor Islam, has said, “If any involvement in this regard is found, we will show zero tolerance.”
Note the above phrasing closely, dear reader. It underscores that these are still only accusations, until concrete evidence is found. While these are still only accusations, that must not preclude a conversation about the history and present status of sexual abuse by soldiers, especially during peacekeeping missions. Such an exploration will help us contextualize the environment in which the acts have been allegedly performed and the accusations, arisen.
Conflicts and sexual violence have gone hand in hand for centuries, if not millennia. In ancient Roman legal system, armies that entered a city by force were entitled to perpetrate mass rape. Legend has it that, circa 750 BCE, early Romans would abduct and commit forceful intercourse with neighboring Sabine women, in order to populate the new city. In Hindu mythology, the ten-headed King of Lanka, Ravana abducts and attempts to defile the virtuous Sita as an act of war. It pre-Islamic Arabia, sex with prisoners of war and slaves was common. In fact, it was not until the 14th century that European rulers directly criminalized wartime rape.
The French Army during expeditions in Morocco and Algeria and in the First World War ran and abused Bordels Militaire De Campagne, or mobile brothels. More than 200,000 ‘comfort women’ were drafted by the Japanese Army during WW2. Yet, only naïve and primitive discourse treats wartime sexual violence merely as a biological byproduct of fielding large armies on enemy turf. In the 1990s, a Medecins Sans Frontieres report stated, “In Bosnia systematic rape was used as part of the strategy of ethnic cleansing.” This marked the beginning of a deeper inquiry into the nature of sexual violence during war.
Of course, no nightmare is as vivid in our minds as the systematic rape of Bangladeshi women during 1971. In an interview with Dr. Bina D’Costa, Dr. Geoffrey Davis (who performed thousands of abortions during the Liberation War) said of the Pakistan Army, “They had orders of a kind or instruction from Tikka Khan to the effect that a good Muslim will fight anybody except his father. […] [They had to impregnate Bangladeshi women] so there would be a whole generation of children in East Pakistan that would be born with the blood from the West.” Chilling as they are, the doctor’s words are testimony to the terrible cost of conflict borne by the bodies and minds of women and children, as a systemic part of war.
In the latest installment, ISIS fighters are perpetrating systematic rape of and trade in female ‘disbelievers’ – in multiple occasions, claiming that their version of radical Islam allows raping disbelieving women and girls. The minority Yazidi community especially has been subjected to inhumane humiliation and torture.
There seem to be at least four factors that create the conditions that facilitate sexual violence during conflicts. Firstly, there is the dehumanizing of rivals – painting them as sub-human through the use of wartime propaganda. Secondly, there is social devolution and breakdown of communities that arise out of conflicts and leave women and children (typically, non-combatants) vulnerable. Next, there is the strategic use of sexual violence as psychological warfare, with the intention of humiliating the enemy. In history, victors have been known to claim enemy women as ‘booty’. Fourthly, there is the issue of having (largely male) combatants uprooted from their natural habitat and social facilities for extended periods of times, which leaves them deprived of social and biological stimuli.
But most theories fall apart when applied to UN peacekeeping troops. They are trained and counseled to not think of people as inferiors. They have no need to use psychological warfare against natives. On the contrary, they are chosen from the best, receive basic orientation trainings and have high expectations riding on them. Yet in 1996, Graça Machel (Nelson Mandela’s ex-wife and former First-Lady of Mozambique) noted, “in 6 out of 12 country studied on sexual exploitation of children in situations of armed conflict prepared for the present report, the arrival of peacekeeping troops has been associated with a rapid rise in child prostitution.”
A decade later, the (Prince) Zeid Report noted the involvement of peacekeeping personnel in sexual exploitation “in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo in the early 1990s to Cambodia and Timor-Leste in the early and late 1990s to West Africa in 2002 and the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2004.” The report observed that solutions undertaken were mostly ad hoc and attempted no systemic recalibration. The UN has since established a Conduct and Discipline Unit (CDU), while adopting a strategy of prevention, enforcement and remedial action. Around the same time, NATO troops were turning Kosovo into a major sex-slavery industry. Another decade later, UN troops in Haiti would be engaging in ‘transactional sex‘ with women and minors in need of food and medication.
It is baffling that sexual violence against women and children are perpetrated by rival armies and peacekeeping troops alike. Not to mention that UN-related incidents are underreported due to fear of retribution, excommunication or mockery! It is possible that the presence of an armed force among a war-ravaged population creates the worst kind of imbalances. It is likely that economic inequality, within the microcosm of host communities, opens up avenues for exploitation. There are reported cases where the level of destitution is such that abused children prefer abuse or prostitution to starvation. Thus paved is the road to socioeconomic exploitation.
The situation is exacerbated by the complex arrangement through which the UN places troops in host countries. Under the UN Model Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), military members are generally immune from prosecution in the host country. The countries retain disciplinary responsibility for their own military forces. Now, it should not be surprising if Troop Contributing Countries (TCCs) are reluctant to admit to wrongdoing by its personnel and therefore minimizing legal action. In a bizarre twist, the Zeid Report states that the TCC may not even receive entire inquiry reports – because the UN has a policy of not releasing documents that expose it to third party lawsuits. Sexual exploitation is thus sustained by the combined reluctance of victims, TCCs and the UN itself. As long as socioeconomic realities and enforcement weaknesses are not addressed, a lasting solution to exploitation and abuses may not be possible.
Originally published on The Daily Star.