Ed Storey and Sabrina White reflect on the recently marked ‘UN peacekeeper day’.
The United Nations (UN) must continue to reform to address ongoing concerns related to sexual exploitation and abuse. Furthermore, in the interests of strengthening prevention efforts and supporting justice, we strongly believe that some forms of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse should be recognised and approached as sexual forms of corruption.
Defined simply, sexual extortion is a sexual form of corruption that refers to the abuse of entrusted power through psychological rather than physical coercion to obtain a sexual advantage or favour. For example, the exchange of sex for food or basic goods required for survival or sex for a salary constitute a sexual form of corruption. Acknowledging that some forms of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse are sexual forms of corruption would allow for a fresh perspective on corruption evident in peacekeeping operations and present an opportunity for improving integrity and accountability of peacekeeping.
Since their first mission in 1948 to the Middle East, UN peacekeepers, the blue helmets, have come to be a symbol of hope and human cooperation across the globe. UN peacekeepers have embarked on some 72 missions since their formation in which over 1 million men and women have served. Their interventions have undoubtedly saved countless lives, and the international community owes the approximately 3,500 peacekeepers who have laid down their lives in services a great debt of gratitude. However, these peacekeeping missions have left numerous stories and scandals of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse in their wake. From individual cases of rape, to running a child sex ring in Haiti, and peacekeepers exchanging food for sex, it has grown obvious that U.N peacekeeping operations face a systemic problem of sexual exploitation, sexual abuse, and sexual forms of corruption.
The victims’ stories often follow a tragically similar pattern. Peacekeepers are typically deployed to war-torn regions of the world inhabited by people who may be struggling to meet their basic survival needs. Furthermore, amidst an often-unstable security situation and due to the financial resources and demand for services accompanying missions, civilians often congregate around peacekeeper bases. Peacekeepers have a position of authority, access to shelter, food, and financial resources. They are in a prime position to prey upon those they should be protecting. Victims are often very young, sometimes prepubescent, typically out of school, and with a family struggling or unable to support them. Many victims are led to believe that they are cared for by their abuser and come to hope that by submitting to abuse they may be able to escape to a better life elsewhere. Such cases are well documented by the UN itself, and some victims have been left with children fathered and abandoned by peacekeepers which places a significant financial burden on survivors who may already struggling.
Many of these cases of sexual assault are well illustrated in the harrowing story of Sarah, as reported by the Economist. However, a significant number of the crimes of peacekeepers should be classified as acts of sexual extortion, and therefore both sexual violence and corruption. These acts are distinct from rape as they involve a person in a position of authority psychologically rather than physically coercing a victim to engage in survival sex, defined as sexual acts performed in return for the basic necessities to support life such as food or shelter. There are numerous cases of young victims coerced into survival sex with peacekeepers documented by multiple organisations for a significant amount of time.
As long ago as 2001, Save the Children reported many cases of vulnerable, very young girls, being forced to remove their clothing for peacekeepers cameras in exchange for biscuits. In many cases, rape and survival sex are closely linked, and often initial sexual assault may later necessitate a survivor engaging to survival sex to provide for a child a peacekeeper has fathered then abandoned.
These circumstances that may force victims into survival sex are clearly represented in the story of Grace and Emma. In Grace’s case, sexual relations with a Uruguayan peacekeeper left her pregnant. Grace was unable to cover the costs of pregnancy, childbirth and raising Emma, and was therefore forced to engage in survival sex. Grace would meet with peacekeepers in a nearby UN base where she would receive a little money, food or hygiene products in exchange for sex to support Emma. There are numerous stories like Grace’s, in a study on peacekeeper abuses in the Democratic Republic of Congo, it was found that survival sex in exchange for basic essential goods was the most prominently recurring motivation for engaging sexually with peacekeepers.
Viewing these crimes as corrupt acts, as well as sexual violence, opens new avenues for prevention, response, and potential prosecution. This goes for all incidences of sexual corruption, including survival sex and sex for jobs in the humanitarian sector. These cases illustrate that corruption is not solely an issue of good governance, but also individual abuses of power are powerful reminders of how destructive of an impact corruption has on the lives on individuals. Often by necessity, policy discussions remain at the abstract level, focusing on good governance. However, we strongly believe that the stories of victims and survivors must be acknowledged and at the policy-making table, to keep discussions grounded and the stakes at play in mind.
The United Nations has taken steps in the right direction in response to these issues, especially since António Guterres’ election as Secretary-General. But, there remains much to be done, and the UN must commit to tackling this systemic corruption issue head-on and aggressively to ensure that UN peacekeepers are successful in their role of ensuring rather than undermining human security. It is strongly recommended that some forms of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse are acknowledged as sexual forms of corruption and that anti-corruption training be provided alongside training on the zero-tolerance policy for sexual exploitation and sexual abuse and gender. We owe it to the victims and survivors to pursue justice, and to ensure that the matter is not shelved until the next media storm brings it to light.
Ed Storey is a Transparency International Defence and Security Intern and a University of Sussex Corruption and Governance postgraduate student. Sabrina White is Transparency International Defence and Security’s Gender Specialist and a PhD researcher in victim-centred approach to sexual exploitation and sexual abuse in UN peacekeeping.
Our latest research catalogues conflict and corruption around the word – harm caused by leaving the privatisation of national security to grow and operate without proper regulation.
Post-Afghanistan, exploitation of global conflicts is big business. Most private military and security firms are registered in the US, so we are calling on Congress to take a leading role in pushing through meaningful reforms under its jurisdiction. The time has also come for accreditation standards to be enforced rather than only encouraged, at both a national and international level.
Michael Ofori-Mensah, Head of Research at Transparency International Defence and Security, describes some of the dangers documented in our latest research paper.
Unaccountable private military and security companies continue to pursue partnerships that in recent years have led indirectly to the assassination of presidents and journalists, land grabs in conflict zones, and even suspected war crimes.
From Haiti to Saudi Arabia to Nigeria, US-based organisations – the firms that dominate the market – have found themselves associated with a string of tragedies, all while their sector has grown ever-more lucrative.
Transparency International Defence and Security’s latest research – ‘Hidden Costs: US private military and security companies and the risks of corruption and conflict – catalogues the harm playing out internationally as countries increasingly seek to outsource national security concerns to soldiers of fortune.
Hidden costs from the trade in national security
While the US and other governments have left the national security industry to grow and operate without proper regulation, the risks of conflict being exploited for monetary gain are growing all the time.
Hidden Costs documents how the former CEO of one major US private military and security company was convicted – following a guilty plea – of bribing Nigerian officials for a US$6bn land grab in the long-plundered Niger Delta.
Our research also highlights that the Saudi operatives responsible for Jamal Khashoggi’s savage murder received combat training from the US security company Tier One Group.
Arguably most damning are the accounts from Haiti, where the country’s president was killed last year by a squad of mercenaries thought to have been trained in the US and Colombia.
Many governments around the world argue that critical security capability gaps are being filled quickly and with relatively minimal costs through the growing practise of outsourcing.
Spurred on by the US government’s normalisation of the trade, US firms are growing both their services and the number of fragile countries in which they operate.
The private military and security sector has swelled to be worth US$224 billion. That figure is expected to double by 2030.
The value of US services exported is predicted to grow to more than $80 billion in the near future, but the industry and the challenge faced is global.
The risks of corruption and conflict in the pursuit of profits are plain.
These risks are as old as time. But their modern manifestations in warzones must not be left to spill over. The 20-year war in Afghanistan cultivated dynamics that threaten further damage, more than a decade after governments first expressed their concerns.
International rules and robust regulation are urgently needed. We need measures that ensure mandatory reporting of private military and security company activities. The Montreux Document lacks teeth, operating as it does as guidance that is not legally binding. Code of conduct standards must also become mandatory for accreditation, rather than purely voluntary.
Most private military and security firms are registered in the US. So Transparency International Defence and Security is also calling on Congress to take a leading role in pushing through meaningful reforms under its jurisdiction. There is an opportunity arriving in September, when draft legislation faces review.
Policymakers have long been aware of the corruption risks and the related threats to peace and prosperity posed by this sector. The time for action is well overdue. No more Hidden Costs.
The assassination of Haiti’s president by a mercenary hit squad demonstrates the destabilizing effects of privatized force. The United States does not have the laws needed to prevent and punish such acts.
By Michael Picard
On 7 July, a team of foreign mercenaries linked to a US security firm assassinated a head of state. Jovenel Moise, Haiti’s president, was murdered in his own home by a well-trained commando unit composed of Colombian and US nationals. His wife, Martine, was critically wounded.
This raises questions. Under what pretext did the US citizens participate in this heinous act? More importantly, what control does the US government have over such actions, and is this enough to prevent similar actions in the future?
Contemporary conversations about mercenaries focus on private military security companies and contractors (collectively PMSCs). The United States is home to a uniquely large PMSC industry, bloated by two decades of government contracting in support of the War on Terror, as well as a glut of recent combat veterans with special forces experience.
US PMSCs provide their services both domestically and abroad, from guarding oil pipelines and embassies to training foreign security forces. As the sector expanded and internationalized, so have concerns about the ethics, legality, and impacts of normalizing private force in fragile environments.
US mercenaries have a long history of operating in and destabilizing Latin American countries, which continues to this day. In May 2020, Venezuelan authorities captured and exposed a team of armed dissidents led by two US contractors – former green berets. The contractors worked for a US PMSC seeking to overthrow dictator Nicolas Maduro on behalf of the Venezuelan opposition.
US PMSC activity extends to Haiti. In February 2019, a group of US contractors were arrested in Port-au-Prince with a large cache of weapons and military equipment found in their vehicles. After the US Government intervened, the contractors were repatriated and set free without charge. The contractors claimed they were hired as a private security detail for Haiti’s wealthy elite in light of heightened civil unrest, while also claiming they were hired by the Haitian government to provide essential security services, demonstrating the blurry line between private and public interest in a country like Haiti. According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, which ranks countries according to local perceptions of state corruption, Haiti ranks in the world’s bottom 10, below Afghanistan.
These two examples demonstrate how a US PMSC could be hired by sectional interests to conduct criminal operations in a highly insecure environment with impunity. On one hand, such a group could be hired to provide – on paper – official services to a foreign government, such as military training, technical assistance, or executive protection. On the other hand, they could be hired under the guise of providing security for private interests, such as an influential oligarch or a foreign company with local interests.
In either case, however, the US Government has little to no oversight. If a foreign government hires a US PMSC to provide essential defense services – such as military training, intelligence gathering, equipment maintenance, etc – the PMSC would require an arms export license from the US State Department. As stipulated in the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), the PMSC would present a contract-like document to the US State Department’s arms control body, which would then review it in coordination with the US Defense Department, before approving it.
As a rule, the State Department forbids the authorization of combat services under ITAR. While ITAR gives the government some oversight of PMSC activities, it is highly limited owing to the intangible nature of many defense services. Once in country, there is little to prevent the PMSC from carrying out unauthorized actions, especially when supported by the hosting state.
This was precisely the case with a US PMSC hired by the UAE to carry out assassinations in Yemen in 2015 and 2016. The team carrying out the killings reportedly received an ITAR license to provide the UAE with defense services, likely military training. Yet the US Government has few means to verify that the authorized services are carried out without diversion or misappropriation. Traditional post-delivery verification checks used for tangible defense items are arguably inapplicable to the knowledge- and skill-based services provided by professional soldiers.
Beyond ITAR, there is essentially no other avenue in which the US Government can monitor and control the overseas activities of a US PMSC (unless hired by the US Government). The ITAR definition for defense services intentionally excludes security services – whether for a government, a private company, or a wealthy individual – as its inclusion would overwhelm the thinly-resourced office responsible for licensing arms exports.
Furthermore, punishing the illicit actions of US PMSCs is also difficult. While mercenarism is illegal under international humanitarian law, its definition of mercenary is weak to the point of being redundant. US PMSCs operating overseas are typically held accountable to local law unless they are supporting a US military operation or diplomatic mission governed by a status of forces agreement. This poses a challenge in countries where there is little to no rule of law. Haiti’s justice system is debilitatingly corrupt, and likely lacks the capacity to impartially investigate and prosecute cases relating to political violence involving national elites.
Haiti has long suffered from the exploitative influence of foreign private interests as well as a government that is highly susceptible to corruption. This assassination shows that, in such an environment, it only takes a handful of mercenaries to potentially bring down the state. Without a substantive set of regulations governing the overseas activities of US PMSCs, there is little to prevent their diversion and misuse for subversive, destabilizing actions.
This puts countries like Haiti at risk – and in turn, the United States. It is apparent that any discrete actor can hire US PMSCs to assassinate influential individuals – perhaps even a head of state – and sow chaos in fragile, conflict-ridden countries. When that country borders the United States, it is apparent that US national security is at stake.
Michael Picard is a research fellow for Transparency International Defence & Security (TI-DS). Much of the research presented in this blog is the topic of a forthcoming report by TI-DS on PMSCs and corruption in fragile states.