[This post is by guest-writer Line Løvåsen].
Bodies as battleground
The use of rape, genital torture and other types of sexual violence (or gender based violence) is common in most military conflicts, and is often a conscious strategic choice rather than exceptional excesses by individual soldiers. This kind of violence now kills and maims more African women than the combined effects of cancer, malaria, road accidents and war (see here). The conflicts in Congo, Rwanda, Liberia, Sudan and in other countries, also outside Africa, have left countless women and children the victims of sexual atrocities.
Violence against women has been called “the most pervasive yet least recognized human rights abuse in the world” (see here) and can be exercised on many different levels: that of the individual and the household (domestic violence), the level of culture or ethnic groups etc.
In the conflicts in Congo, for example, all parties have used sexual violence, including the UN Peacekeeping Forces (called MONUC, see here). I want to disrupt the automatic association that peacekeeping is the alternative to military violence. I want to show that peacekeeping may increase conflicts and insecurity. While the gender relationships in certain ethnic groups are seen as unequal and violent by the West, we in the West often judge without examining our own behavior. Gender violence doesn’t get the attention it deserves, especially gender violence in or by the West.
What if peacekeeping equals violence?
What happens when the solution to a conflict is another problem? The presence of UN peacekeepers may indeed keep the peace, but may and does sometimes lead to gender based violence inflicted by the peacekeepers on the local population. Peacekeeping missions may encourage prostitution by local women, especially if poverty levels are such that this is the only trade these women have (Martin 2005:15-16). As in all prostitution settings, rape is often disguised as prostitution.
However, the problem is not limited to sexual violence. Peacekeeping troops may also experience a culture shock that can escalate into racism and even racist violence. In the Somali mission, Somali men were seen as homosexuals (as in Somalia it is common for men to hold hands). In addition, the extreme situations in which peacekeepers often find themselves, can provoke attitudes like “Why even bother, these people are backward and barbarians”.
In the eyes of the local populations, peacekeeping can be seen as military conquest (Jeong 1999:22-23), especially when the violent actions of these peacekeepers isn’t of a sexual nature but the result of abuses of power (Martin 2005:15-16). Such abuses are linked to the impunity and immunity that normally apply to peacekeeping forces.
Accusations of sexual violence or abuses of power by peacekeepers are hard to investigate, either because the local judicial system has collapsed (which is often the case when there is a need for peacekeepers), or because the international community and/or the country of origin of the peacekeepers fail to take notice. An incident in Somalia when a boy was tortured for hours and killed by UN peacekeepers forced people to notice the often contradictory nature of peacekeeping.
It is important to keep in mind the culture where peacekeepers come from (F&N 1994:14-15), because a culture shock can lead to violence or other types of human rights violations. Moreover, we shouldn’t forget that peacekeepers are soldiers, and some of the assumptions that guide military behavior are detrimental to conflict resolution processes. Current military training and logic still contains strong “them-us” and “win-lose” dichotomies and condones human rights abuses in the name of security. Moreover, the presence of armed forces can escalate the sense of threat and disagreements, and can convince local populations that the use of force is the normal type of social interaction (F&N 1994:18). They will be tempted to ask the question: if those peacekeepers can fight violence with violence, why can’t we do so as well?
How to improve peacekeeping?
According to Fetherston (1993:22-24) we must first address and understand our assumptions of what is success. Traditional diplomacy operates from negative peace-assumptions. Violent conflict is seen as a natural state of affairs and success is a settlement or a compromise. This, however, often means reinforcing existing power structures rather than the mitigation of discontent. Contrary to this, we need to move towards conflict resolution. Success here is positive peace tied to basic human needs. Violence is not seen as natural, but caused by social and environmental conditions and the frustration of human needs. These things can be changed (Fetherston 1993:6-7).
The focus must be on larger long term processes of reconstruction, rather than short term suppression of conflict. Peacekeepers must lead by example, and hence they must develop skills such as empathy and cultural awareness rather than purely military skills (Fetherston 1993:14). When peacekeepers derail, there should be a more effective criminal prosecution system. One could also attempt to increase the number of women in peacekeeping troops.
Fetherstone, A. B. (1993) Making UN pk more peaceful: Relating Concepts of “Success” to Field Reality Working Paper (Australian National Unversity. Peace Research Centre); NO 139 National Library of Australia
Fetherstone, A. B. and Nordstrom, C. (1994) Overcoming conceptual habitus in conflict management: UN peacekeeping and warzone ethnography, Working Paper (Australian National Unversity. Peace Research Centre); NO 147 National Library of Australia
Jeong, H-W. (1999) “Concepts of Peace and Violence” in Peace and Conflicts Studies: An Introduction. Aldershot, England: Ashgate Publishing, pp. 19-30.
Martin, S. (2005) Must boys be boys? Ending sexual exploitation & abuse in UN peacekeeping missions, Refugee International, http://www.refugeesinternational.org/content/publication/detail/6976
If you want to learn more about gender based violence in different countries and the campaigns for change, here are some links: