The conflict and long-term crisis in the Central African Republic (CAR) is characterized by its inter-ethnic cleavages and deepened by scattered surges of violence and state disintegration.  It has now moved from a religious-based conflict to a fight for resources between Seleka rebels. Against this complex backdrop, it now appears the French legal system is about to close the case, sans charges, on allegations of rape against French peacekeeping troops (Operation Sangaris) deployed to CAR in 2013 and 2014. The alleged sexual assault of children was made known to French prosecutors by a UN official, Anders Kompass, who worried no action was being taken. Without commenting on the events or potential guilt, I would like to focus on some of the issues that arise around sexual exploitation and abuse in military and civilian operations.

The adoption of UNSCR 1325, and the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda, highlighted the need to address conflict-related sexual violence. It made clear that military capabilities could be used for prevention and protection from sexual and gender based violence (SGBV), including sexual exploitation and abuse, primarily by ensuring that military responders retain the highest legal and moral standards.

Responding to security threats, in whichever form, is a core capability that security actors (including the military) must tackle. If these actors were also tasked with mapping, monitoring, reporting, analyzing and assessing gender-related issues, including SGBV, much could be achieved in terms of prevention of and protection from SGBV.

Security and defense institutions remain dominated by men, as they have been throughout history. These institutions are built upon masculine norms, values, processes and activities, making them bastions of hegemonic masculinity. This is made evident by the enduring barriers that work against the retention of women within these structures, and the continued presence of sexual and gender-based violence that exists within the ranks, which is not exclusive to conflict or post-conflict settings. SGBV occurs in all military organizations: be it in Afghanistan, the United States or Canada. Internal sexual harassment, discrimination, sexual abuse, and sexual assault within military institutions must not be left out of the picture when addressing the threat of SGBV to peace and security. These aspects have been part and parcel of the WPS agenda, and by direct extension, the topic of sexual exploitation and abuse. The first step towards a more effective implementation of the provisions of the WPS agenda has been the recognition of the much gendered structures within which sexual and gender-based violence thrives, followed by the need to address the root causes of patriarchy and hyper-masculinities. 

Politicians and military commanders know that trust and credibility are essential to the conduct of operations, and without which, the mission at hand could be lost. As in the case of the 2003 UN Mission to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC), the entire mission faced a serious challenge of troop misconduct including sexual exploitation and abuse so grave that the positive aspects of the mission were completely overshadowed by the negative events. There were even long discussions about redeploying the whole mission, which in the end did not happen.

On the other hand, there are positive signs that the pervasive ‘boys will be boys’ attitude within militaries, including peacekeeping operations, is slowly changing. Many, including Western armed forces, are trying, and are sometimes compelled, to better understand, prevent and respond to cases of sexual harassment, assault, abuse, discrimination and sexualized treatment of female, as well as male, personnel. There is an effort to eradicate the oft-widespread blame culture that encourages silence and hostility toward victims and should be applauded and encouraged since it is always easier to criticize and advise externally rather than address the problems ‘at home.’ On many levels, not least with respect to moral obligations, turning a blind eye against obvious misdeeds is problematic.

Within the WPS agenda, and more specifically the UNSCRs addressing conflict-related sexual violence, the issue of combatting impunity is a part of the essential trust relationship between military forces and the population. The aftermath of the French CAR case highlights the challenge of bridging the gap, and to demonstrate the absence of different yardsticks used to measure and interpret misdeeds done by the ‘white saviors and the ‘dangerous brown men.’  As we have repeatedly seen, the international community expects that all standards of behavior are respected by the host nation. On the other hand, these same standards seem to not apply, or can fall to the wayside, in respect to those carrying out the mission. The risk here is of course that such behavior leads to the mission’s credibility being questioned when cooperating with other nations’ or host nation forces. The reasons may vary, but they generally fall within the following categories: impunity, widely accepted behaviors attributed to masculinity, or just plain political unwillingness to air dirty laundry (i.e., sexual exploitation and abuse) in public. It would be easy to cynically ask the question: Does the famous declaration of liberté, égalité, fraternité only apply to French troops and not the ones they are there to protect?

Just because something can’t be proven, does not mean that it did not take place. So even if the French peacekeeping troops may not get any formal charges brought against them, lingering accusations and a sense of wrongdoing will remain among those already decided that there is something fundamentally wrong with the current peacekeeping system. Also, worth bearing in mind is that accountability is not only tested in the civilian court system, the military has a wide variety of other mechanisms to address misconduct or unprofessional behavior that falls outside of the criminal legislation.

The CAR case tells us an important lesson. Any mission that deploys to a conflict zone or crisis must be able to demonstrate best practices and serve as a role model, otherwise, the mission, as well as the nation contributing the troops, risks its credibility being questioned.

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not reflect those of the European External Action Service.

Image: Getty