"NEW DELHI (AlertNet) - Those who use rape as a weapon of war in volatile regions across the world must be punished, says the United Nations, but activists say the global body must also end impunity of its own peacekeepers who are guilty of such crimes.
According to the U.N., sexual violence by government forces and armed rebels increasingly is being used as a cheap, effective tactic to terrorise communities trapped between armed groups or even after a peace deal has been brokered. From the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to the Darfur region of Sudan to the heavily militarised eastern regions of Myanmar, rape and sexual abuse of women and girls are becoming commonplace, say humanitarians.
"The changing nature of war and conflict has put women and children on the front line -- not as soldiers, but as victims," Margot Wallstrom, the U.N.'s first Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, said last week in New Delhi."Women very often cannot choose to hide or stay at home -- they have to go and fetch water, they have to get firewood, they have to make sure they can support their families. So even if they know an armed group is in the vicinity, they have to go out and that means often they are attacked." Wallstrom, who was appointed last year, cited the example in eastern DRC where hundreds of women were brutally raped by rebels in the town of Luvungi last August, adding that one of the best ways to stem sexual violence was to end impunity for those guilty of such atrocities.
But while women's rights activists have welcomed such statements, many say the U.N.-- and its 192 member states -- should also look at holding accountable its own 110,000 currently deployed peacekeepers.
SEXUAL ABUSE BY "PROTECTORS”
Over the last decade, the U.N. has had its share of sex scandals where its trusted peacekeepers -- deployed in hot spots across the world -- have been implicated in sexual violence against innocent civilians. From the remote forested villages of Eastern Congo, to the streets of the Ivory Coast's capital, Abidjan -- unimaginable reports have surfaced of the blue helmets-- trusted to protect populations-- raping local women and abusing children. In 2001, Jordanian peacekeepers in East Timor reportedly were involved in sexually exploiting young Timorese boys and raping women. In 2005, reports emerged of Nepalese peacekeepers, deployed in DRC, accused of using food and money to pay girls as young as 12 to have sex with them. In 2008, a study by the British branch of the international charity Save the Children said that in southern Sudan, Haiti and Ivory Coast it had found widespread sexual abuse of children, some as young as six, by peacekeepers, as well as aid workers. Senior U.N. officials say such instances are rare, adding that they are in no way comparable to the systematic atrocities committed in places like the DRC by armed groups and national armies during a conflict. But they admit that such misconduct can impact the credibility of the organisation.
NO PEACEKEEPERS ON TRIAL
Officials say training peacekeepers on sexual violence is conducted prior to deployment, but, with a turnover of 300,000 troops annually, resources at the U.N. are challenged. Wallstrom, who was in Delhi to speak at international conference on peacekeeping, said the U.N. advocated a zero-tolerance policy towards sexual misconduct, but admitted there were limitations on what it could do to punish the guilty. "This is a voluntary contribution by the member states, so what we can do as the U.N., we can take them out of service and we can send them back home," said Wallstrom. "And then it is up to every member state to make sure there is follow-up. On that, we don't have leverage or we don't have any powers to influence to that."
However, activists say there is little investigation, let alone prosecution by national governments when the accused soldier returns, and most remain working in the military or police service. The U.N. has no power to impose any follow-up, activists say, adding that the world's 114 peacekeeping-contributing nations are an tremendous resource that the global organisation can ill-afford to upset."
By Nita Bhalla