But some stand accused of committing crimes against the very people they are supposed to protect.
According to a recent investigation by the Associated Press, between 2004 and 2016, the United Nations received almost 2000 allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse against its peacekeepers.
The UN says it has a zero tolerance policy on sexual exploitation and abuse, but survivors, activists, lawyers and human rights organisations say such crimes have been allowed to continue with impunity.
Through conversations with UN peacekeepers and officials, gender experts, academics, researchers and activists, as well as through an investigation of UN data, in this four-part series, we try to navigate these competing accounts to answer the question: How did some peacekeepers become predators?
In part three, we ask if the presence of a peacekeeping community can sometimes do the host nation more harm than good.
In her 2015 book, Peaceland, Severine Autesserre, a professor of political science at Barnard College of Columbia University in the US, writes about a “community of interveners for whom peace is either the primary objective (like peacekeepers) or part of a broader set of goals (such as diplomats or development workers)” who often exist in a parallel world to the people they are meant to serve.
She argues that the way in which this community lives, talks and collaborates with locals reinforces “a pervasive power disparity between the interveners and their intended beneficiaries”.
The “peacekeeping economy” - in which millions of dollars arrive, circulate between external actors and rarely reach or benefit the local community - emboldens a sense of impunity and superiority among this community of interveners, says Marsha Henry, an associate professor at the London School of Economics’ Gender Institute in the UK.
Interaction with the local population is often discouraged. But Henry argues there should be more, not less, of it. When interaction does happen, it is often in the form of peacekeepers parading in their armoured vehicles and blue helmets, something she says furthers the “dehumanisation of the host population”.
Peacekeeping and prostitution
There is one particular economy that can be fed by the presence of peacekeepers.
In the International Organisation journal article Peacekeeping, Compliance with International Norms, and Transactional Sex in Monrovia, published late last year, researchers found that more than 50 percent of women surveyed in the Liberian capital, Monrovia, had engaged in transactional sex. “A large majority - 75 percent - with UN peacekeeping,” the report found.
Widely touted as the first quantitative study of the association between a UN peacekeeping operation and transactional sex, the report stated: “Transactional sex with UN personnel is a ubiquitous life experience among young women in Monrovia.
“The actions of UN peacekeepers are undermining the UN’s broader peace-building goals in Liberia,” it continued.
“When the UN Mission in Liberia withdraws, it will leave behind a distorted economy in which more than half of Monrovia’s young women will have been making their livelihoods by selling sex.”
What constitutes exploitation and what abuse?
The UN discourages sexual relations between peacekeepers and the local community, arguing it fosters unequal relations.
While peacekeepers can be fired or repatriated for breaking the UN code by engaging in sexual relations, including paying for sex (defined as exploitation by the UN) with a member of the local community, they can escape prosecution if the UN rules that it is not abuse (such as rape), or if prostitution is not illegal in the country.
It is up to the UN to decide whether the peacekeeper’s behaviour is deemed exploitation or abuse.
Olivier Salgado, the spokesperson for the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations, explains the distinction between the two.
“Sexual exploitation incorporates an inherently unequal power dynamic. Sexual abuse is a physical act committed whether by force or under unequal or coercive conditions. Both sexual exploitation and sexual abuse, however, violate the fundamental values of the United Nations and its standards of conduct.”
‘Consensual’ sex and unequal power dynamics
When in 2003, the then UN secretary-general Kofi Annan introduced a zero tolerance policy on sexual abuse and exploitation, he also “discouraged” peacekeepers from engaging in sexual relations with beneficiaries of assistance “since they are based on inherently unequal power dynamics, [and] undermine the credibility and integrity of the work of the United Nations”.
But academics and researchers disagree over the effectiveness of this approach
The pressure on peacekeepers to remain celibate for long missions is “unreasonable”, says Henry. “Many just don’t see paying someone for sex as a major infraction if they cover it up, it is because they know the UN doesn’t like it,” she adds.
Paul Higate, a lecturer at the school of sociology, politics and international studies at the University of Bristol in the UK, agrees it is counterproductive to regulate or prohibit sexual relations between consenting adults.
But Gill Mathurin, communications director of Aids Free World, on the other hand, argues it is “not possible for there to be consensual sex between UN peacekeepers and the people they are sent to serve”.
Higate believes there needs to be greater clarity over how sexual relations are understood in the context of the power dynamics between peacekeepers and the host population.
Bunia, Democratic Republic of Congo
Helen Wembe* was at home in the village of Bunia, in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, when a peacekeeper came to the door. Wembe, who was 13 at the time, explained her grandmother wasn’t home as she had gone to a funeral.
The peacekeeper entered.
“He raped me. My brothers and sisters were in the house at the time,” she says.
That was in 2004, the same year the international media reported that peacekeepers had been exchanging eggs, bananas, and peanut butter for sex with women and children in Wembe’s village.
The women involved said they were hungry, homeless or needed items for their babies or households.
Hundreds of children were subsequently born in Bunia.
The UN introduced DNA testing to determine the paternity of these so-called “peacekeeper babies”.
There are currently 22016 peacekeepers in the DRC. Since 2015, there have been 47 allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse in the DRC.
These include 83 peacekeepers and 65 survivors. To date, five of the accused have been jailed.
* Name changed to protect identity
* Azad Essa is a journalist at Al Jazeera, covering sub-Saharan Africa