Rape & Disease In Peacekeeping: Who Protects From The Protectors?

Written by Andrew Friedman

“In late 2013, 15-year-old Qamar R. went to the [African Union controlled base in Mogadishu] to get medicine for her sick mother. An interpreter told her to follow two Burundian soldiers who would give her the medicine. She followed them to a remote area…and one of the soldiers proceeded to rape her, while the second one walked around… As she was leaving, the second Burundian soldier waved her to come over to him and gave her US$10.” This is but one of the disturbing incidents detailed in a Human Rights Watch report released earlier this month about sexual assault and rape by African Union peacekeepers in Somalia.

The report, entitled “The Power These Men Have Over Us’: Sexual Exploitation and Abuse by African Union Forces in Somalia,” details 10 separate incidents of rape and sexual assault by personnel associated with the United Nations’ approved African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).

Most of the stories in the report are similar to the one told by the pseudonymed Qamar. Women and girls were at the base to get medicine or humanitarian services, the very purpose of such humanitarian intervention, but instead were subjected to sexual abuse.

Many women “also said that the soldiers gave them food or money after the attack in an apparent attempt to frame the assault as transactional sex and to discourage the women from complaining to authorities.”.

The horrors experienced by women seeking assistance at AMISOM facilities have wider implications across the continent. In addition to such AU peacekeeping missions, of the 16 currently active UN peacekeeping missions, 9 are in Africa. This includes missions in the Western Sahara, the Central African Republic, Mali, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, three in Sudan/South Sudan (South Sudan, Darfur and Abyei), Liberia and the Ivory Coast.

This amounts to nearly 92,000 peacekeepers of the just over 118,000 worldwide, according to the most recently available statistics.

Too Many Peace Keepers?

Simply put, there are many international peacekeepers across Africa.

Of the active international peacekeeping forces, more than 96 percent of the personnel is male, something that has been cited by UN Women as a contributing factor in the prevalence of sexual assault. Such forces can also cause more societal ills than just sexual assault and rape.

Contact, including sexual contact, with local populations can lead to the rampant spread of disease.

A 2000 Los Angeles Times article detailed the role that peacekeeping forces have in spreading HIV and AIDS. This involves not just sexual assault and rape but also consensual or transactional sex.

According to Stuart Kingma, at the time the director of a UN backed group to combat military transmission of HIV/AIDS, “People in uniform are just magnets for the sex worker crowd everywhere, not only at home military installations, but even more so in low-income countries when peacekeeping operations arrive” This hastens the spread of HIV/AIDS.

In addition to international scourges such as HIV/AIDS, the influx of a wide range of foreign nationals can cause the spread of diseases that had previously been eradicated or strains that are unfamiliar to the immune systems of local populaces.

This was the case in 2013 when UN peacekeepers from Nepal were alleged to have spread Cholera to Haitian communities in the wake of the devastating earthquake.

According to The Guardian, effected Haitians, through a lawsuit, allege that Nepali peacekeepers brought with them an Asian strain of cholera in 2010. The outbreak, the first of its kind in Haiti in 150 years, devastated the already immensely troubled Caribbean country.

Elusive Justice

Jurisdictional issues further make it even more difficult for those wronged to find justice.

The African Union maintains Memoranda of Understanding (MoU) with all troop-contributing countries. Such MoUs ensure that all discipline is conducted by the contributing country rather than the AU or host-country.

In the case of the allegations of rape and assault by Burundian soldiers above, despite taking place in Somalia, they can only be tried in Burundi.

Additionally, MoUs are not standardized, creating further jurisdictional and legal chaos. In one example, while all MoUs describe sexual abuse and exploitation as serious misconduct, Kenya and Uganda do not define what constitutes such abuse or exploitation while the Burundian MoU does.

This could lead to a situation where a Burundian peacekeeper and a Kenyan peacekeeper commit the same action to vastly different results, even though they were committed in Somalia on the same mission.

Liability in UN peacekeeping missions share similar legal complexities.

In the Haitian example above, the UN has invoked legal immunity from liability for any civil wrongdoing under the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations, a 1946 treaty. Under the treaty, not only is the United Nations immune from suit, so are employees working in their official capacity.

This creates a wide range of activities where there is no avenue for financial restitution when diseases are spread, even when gross negligence occurs. According to The Guardian, the UN invoking the immunity has been rare, but it is still possible, as demonstrated by the Haitian example.

Peacekeepers can do a great deal of good. They can protect civilian populations in the midst of horrific violence. They can enforce peace deals and ceasefires that save lives. However, in providing humanitarian assistance they must be held to a higher standard.

Not only must the African Union ensure that the alleged rapes are fully investigated and punished, they should remove the legal complexities that cultivate a culture of impunity. The UN should follow suit and ensure that when humanitarian peacekeepers breach protocol and cause harm, reparations and investigations are possible.


Andrew Friedman is a human rights attorney and freelance consultant who works and writes on legal reform and constitutional law with an emphasis on Africa. He can be reached via email at afriedm2@gmail.com or via twitter @AndrewBFriedman.