U.S. and UN Enhance Accountability for Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in Peacekeeping Missions

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A military member stands holding a certificate, he is surrounded by three individuals in suits, as if posing for a photo. Behind the group, a woman in a military uniform stands behind a podium.
A Uruguayan battalion commander, who is deploying to the UN mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, receives his National Investigation Officer course completion certificate from U.S. Ambassador Kelly Keiderling (center).

U.S. and UN Enhance Accountability for Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in Peacekeeping Missions

Nearly 100,000 United Nations peacekeepers help stabilize conflict-affected countries, maintain peace and security, and protect civilians around the world. The UN requires all personnel to meet strict standards to qualify for service as peacekeepers and to uphold the highest standards of conduct, professionalism, and accountability while they are deployed. While the vast majority of men and women who serve do so with honor and integrity, acts of misconduct do occur, unfortunately, including incidents of sexual exploitation and abuse against the very people peacekeepers are deployed to protect.

The UN has a zero-tolerance policy against sexual exploitation and abuse. In an effort to increase accountability for such acts of misconduct, the UN now requires troop contributing countries to assign a National Investigation Officer to every deployed military unit of 150 or more personnel. National Investigation Officers are military officers that are assigned to deploying units to investigate and document incidents of potential misconduct, and gather evidence so that troop contributing countries can take effective disciplinary and legal action when it is required. It is essential that National Investigation Officers are properly trained by legal and subject matter experts to fulfill this critical role. 

Course participants secure a mock potential crime scene during the field training exercise portion of the National Investigation Officer course.

The United States is committed to supporting the UN’s zero-tolerance policy against sexual exploitation and abuse and addressing issues of misconduct by peacekeepers. To that end, the United States and the UN recently conducted the second iteration of the training course for National Investigation Officers in Montevideo, Uruguay. This interactive course, funded by the U.S. Department of State’s Global Peace Operations Initiative (GPOI), provided training for 25 experienced military and civilian personnel-- including five women -- from six countries in the Latin America region, including Argentina, El Salvador, Guatemala, Paraguay, Peru, and Uruguay. The National Investigation Officer course emphasized accountability for sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeepers, and the training it provided familiarized participants with the processes, procedures, and techniques to improve the effectiveness of conduct and discipline investigations in UN peacekeeping. 

The UN’s ability to hold individuals accountable for misconduct is often limited to withholding pay and removing them from peacekeeping missions. Countries that contribute military peacekeepers have the authority and responsibility to conduct their own investigations, but often lack the training and resources to do so effectively. Allegations of misconduct require timely and complete investigations to gather the necessary evidence for host countries to determine whether those allegations are credible, and then take appropriate disciplinary or criminal action. Witness statements and physical evidence must also be collected and preserved, then chain of custody information must be documented in accordance with relevant national and international standards in order to allow for an effective prosecution in criminal cases. Thus, deploying properly trained National Investigation Officers has the potential to significantly decrease the instances of misconduct on peacekeeping missions by enhancing the ability of troop contributing countries to hold offenders accountable.

Officers-in-training organize and analyze the evidence collected during the field training exercise portion of the National Investigation Officer course.

As U.S. Ambassador to Uruguay Kelly Keiderling said in her remarks during the closing ceremony of the course, a National Investigation Officer’s investigation is the first major step in holding those responsible to account. By investigating allegations of misconduct against contingent members, National Investigation Officers help enable their countries to hold offenders accountable, ensure that justice is served, uphold the dignity of victims, and rebuild the trust of the local population.

The National Investigation Officer course has been successful thanks to the extensive cooperation and planning between the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Department of Defense, and the UN. Subject matter experts from the Defense Institute of International Legal Studies and the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services developed the curriculum and served as instructors. U.S. Southern Command and the U.S. Embassy in Montevideo coordinated the 8-day course and identified participants who are projected to deploy as National Investigation Officers on upcoming peacekeeping missions or are assigned duties in their home countries using these skills, such as trainers.

Officers-in-training present results of their investigations during the field training exercise portion of the National Investigation Officer course.

The primary goal of the course was for the participants to learn how to effectively and efficiently investigate misconduct, such as allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse. The instructors provided briefings on the UN’s standards of conduct and discipline, its structure, its resources, and a basic overview of investigative skills and techniques. The course also explored the complex relationship between UN standards, national law, and international legal norms. The training emphasized the responsibilities of National Investigation Officers and how they are an integral part of broader peacekeeping mission effectiveness. Multiple hands-on exercises allowed participants to practice evidence collection, preservation, and chain-of-custody procedures. Students also practiced their skills in interviewing witnesses on camera, which the whole class later reviewed and critiqued to further develop their expertise.

GPOI is managed by the Department of State, in close partnership with the Department of Defense, and works with 53 active partner countries around the world to build peacekeeping capacity. Capacity building support from GPOI ranges from equipment and facilities to training opportunities like the National Investigation Officer course. GPOI training includes modules on preventing sexual exploitation and abuse, where applicable, not just the National Investigation Officer course. The United States and the UN are planning two additional iterations of the course this year:  a course in Africa in the fall that will build on the success of the January 2018 course in Uganda and then a course this winter in the Indo-Pacific region. Through courses like these, GPOI is helping build a cadre of trained officers who can serve effectively as National Investigation Officers to more effectively uphold the UN’s standards of conduct and improve accountability in the missions.

About the Author: Andrew Strike is a Public Affairs Specialist in the Office of Congressional and Public Affairs in the Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs.

Editor's Note: This entry also appears in the U.S. Department of State's publication on Medium.