Understanding Peacekeeper Sexual Violence

Why do soldiers rape? When footage of peacekeepers from MINUSTAH, the UN mission in Haiti, gang-raping an 18-year old boy surfaced earlier this month, that question resurfaced with it. Official declarations have predictably stressed how unfortunate it is that the actions of ‘a few’ should taint the efforts of ‘the many’, although 108 Sri Lankan peacekeepers were expelled from Haiti for sexual exploitation in 2007, and another Uruguayan soldier was recently discharged for sexual relations with a Haitian minor. Certainly, patterns of similar abuse are not restricted to the Haitian mission. One of the more disturbing points in my brief fieldwork in the Democratic Republic of Congo was when an international human rights official told me, with an almost confessional seriousness, that they had feared more for their sexual integrity while travelling with UN peacekeepers than when interviewing Congolese soldiers.

When discussing rapacious African warriors, it is common to interpret sexual violence as part of a drive to accumulate resources or as the reflection of communal hatred in war. Peacekeeper sexual violence constitutes something of a control case in such debates, since it is much harder to link rape to these dynamics. There is no genocidal project for which peacekeepers are the foot soldiers, and they cannot really be said to be frustrated by poor pay and conditions. Certainly there have been links between sexual exploitation by UN peacekeepers and a kind of trade, although in the opposite direction than usually posited. In the case of UN missions, it has been peacekeepers who have exchanged goods for sex with locals, rather than using rape as a means of accessing additional resources for themselves (although they have also been implicated in other criminal networks for financial gain). Peacekeeper practices of sexual abuse are thus closer to sex trafficking and prostitution on a continuum of gendered exploitation than to models of rape as a tool of terror to facilitate resource capture.

Moreover, the dismissive attribution of rape to the backwardness of the nations that make up peacekeeping forces (in putative contrast to the Anglo-American alliance and NATO) is made harder in this case by the sheer whiteness of the accused. One way of addressing rape without adopting the bad apples defence is to link exploitation to the character of the mission itself, as Mark Weisbrot attempts to when he uses the collective rape to decry MINUSTAH as “really a US occupation”. Whatever the validity of the political point, this attempt at a more structural analysis nevertheless requires a deeply reductionist account, one that does not specify the linking mechanism between a general geopolitical agenda and sexualised aggression itself. As a gesture to politicising rape, it cannot provide a plausible theoretical treatment. It only replaces the simplifications of biology and criminal pathology with those of functionalist terror. If discussed in terms similar to many rape-as-a-weapon-of-war theses it would, for example, seem to require that the US and UN hierarchy not only turned a blind eye to, but also actively promoted, the rape of Haitian children as a way to instil a fear adequate to the needs of the occupation. Please.

Just because someone is smiling at you doesn’t mean they’re your friend.

Explanatory attention may be better directed at the practices engendered by cultures of militarised masculinity. As Madeline Morris showed in some excellent but under-appreciated work, socialisation into combat units appears to dramatically raise the incidence of rape carried out by soldiers in conflict zones, even as their propensity to carry out other crimes remains comparable to civilian levels. Far from following a strategic imperative, this seems to result from the affective and aggressive resources promoted and harnessed in the process of militarised group bonding. And these processes may be indirectly reinforced in Haiti by the role of peacekeepers in targeting the slum territories of criminal ‘spoilers’, as they did during the controversial assault on Cité Soleil in 2005. This accords with what Marsha Henry and Paul Higate diagnose when they write that: “to zone, or to do zoning, is to reduce, to simplify, to strip down and to hollow out”. Not quite the drastic othering implied in open war, but a way of creating legitimate objects of violence and degradation nonetheless.

The same research identifies a view in Haiti that the façade of security-providing peacekeepers is a failure on its own terms, and one widely understood to cover for backstage practices behind the ‘choreographed drama’. In addition, peacekeepers live what Higate has elsewhere described as the combination of a militarised subculture with the ‘privilege of temporality’ – that sense of a mission as a special kind of time enabling more extreme personas and behaviours, shielded from the usual ethical checks-and-balances by the status of being on a warrior adventure. The maleness of the victim here also confirms that there is nothing in the norms of gendered violence which means that only women are at risk. Indeed, it may indicate the homosocial flip-side to ‘safe’ practices of fratriarchal bonding, since the footage reveals a joyful ritual in which men violate a boy in the presence of, and for the clear enjoyment of, other men. This is not so much the obedience to phallic authority of patriarchy as the emotionally supportive relationship between brothers-in-arms. Bullies in Blue Berets, as Sandra Whitworth almost called them. Questions of agency and complexity of course linger, but at least point to an analysis of peacekeeping as a particular kind of performance, and a particular way of being a man, rather than any view of it as the epiphenomena of other geopolitical and cultural forces.

4 thoughts on “Understanding Peacekeeper Sexual Violence

  1. Great post. The “rape-as-a-weapon-of-war” script needs to be refocused onto hegemonic masculinities ideological warfare against all ‘other’ members of society. Ramon Hinojosa in his great article “Doing Hegemony: military, men, and constructing a hegemonic masculinity” he found that the soldiers he interviewed were engaged in a kind of ideological conflict with other arms of the military and with the civilian population. An attempt to assert their dominance and secure hegemonic status. Although the sexual abuse of young men in Haiti does not fit well with the tactical needs of the UN, it certainly serves to assert dominant masculinity of peace keepers.


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