Baroness Hodgson's Speech 'Peacekeepers or perpetrators: Protecting Children in Conflict"

CFID Patron, and Co-Chair of the Women, Peace and Security APPG Baroness Fiona Hodgson of Abinger recently gave the opening address at an joint FCO and Economic & Social Research Council event discussing safeguarding children from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in UN peacekeeping operations and to discuss proposals and initiatives for moving forward given the UK’s key role in this area. Read it in full below.

PEACEKEEPERS OR PERPETRATORS: PROTECTING CHILDREN IN CONFLICT

It gives me great pleasure to be here today at this event on Peacekeepers or Perpetrators – Protecting children in conflict, because this is such a very important subject.

The UK is enormously concerned about grave violations being committed against children in conflicts around the world.

Sexual Exploitation and Abuse whether of women and girls, or men and boys is one of the gravest violations – it runs counter to our common values, abusing human rights and dignity. And for those who suffer this heinous crime, they will never forget and the consequences for them will be life shattering.

It is particularly contemptible when these crimes are perpetrated by those who are in positions of trust and power – when they are the people who are turned to for help and protection – violating the trust placed in them - so we must take all possible measures to uphold the right of every person, be they adult or child, to be free from sexual exploitation and abuse.

The UK is committed to the protection and promotion of children’s rights. Too often children are innocent bystanders in times of conflict, caught up in the atrocities taking place around them. In 2014 UNICEF estimated that some 15 million children globally were caught up in conflict. And they will see and suffer things that no child should experience.

As we all know, sexual violence has a devastating impact – it destroys families and communities. Those who experience it may be stigmatized for life. And we should be in no doubt that for children sexual violence may maim and even kill.

And usually where this occurs there are no adequate services to deliver medical treatment, counselling or support in any way.

And what we now know is that widespread sexual violence itself may continue or even increase in the aftermath of conflict as a consequence of insecurity and impunity.

I think we all take for granted the definition of a ‘child which the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child defines as being below the age of 18. But in many of these countries a child is only considered to be a child until the age of puberty.

I remember visiting a village in Liberia about four years ago. I had gone to see what was being done there with the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict campaign. I was able to talk to some of the women on their own and asked if sexual violence was an issue. Oh yes, they told me, it often happens. So I asked whether they were able to bring the perpetrators to justice. I was told that they were unable to visit the policeman unless they had permission of the elders, and the elders only dealt with it if it was a child. So how old would a child be I asked – 10 years old and under. So it was ‘fair game’ to rape any child over 10 years old and I was told that many of the girls of 12 were pregnant having been raped.

And I have also heard reports, in countries where the situation is very fragile, of very young girls being actively encouraged by their families to take up with abusers in the hope that these predatory men will protect the family.

The evidence in the Secretary General’s report on Sexual Exploitation and Abuse is alarming. It shows that grave violations continue to be committed, on an ever increasing scale. In the many conflicts taking place around the world, even where the UN has established peacekeeping missions, children are being sexually abused, maimed, killed, recruited and used as child soldiers.

Children expect and have a right to expect peacekeepers to protect them – every time a peacekeeper fails to do so, that trust and the integrity of the UN are gravely undermined. However, it is not only peacekeepers who commit offences against children. Reports continue to indicate that some personnel in the Development and Humanitarian Agencies are also guilty of abusing their position. Sexual exploitation and abuse by humanitarian staff cannot be tolerated. It violates everything the United Nations stands for. Men, women, and children displaced by conflict or other disasters look to the United Nations and its humanitarian partners for shelter and protection.

These allegations and counter-allegations have focused attention on the UN process for holding peacekeepers accountable for sexual abuse occurring within the context of peacekeeping missions. It also forces us to review current approaches to see how they can be improved to address the problem more effectively.

In the past, our collective failure to prosecute allegations of child rape and sexual exploitation and abuse has sent a signal to predators that working under the UN banner protects them from being held accountable for their actions and facing justice.

Often the UN peacekeeping troops come from countries that do not have the same approach to human rights that we do, and the countries ‘back home’ see no need to take action.

But there must be no more impunity for perpetrators of such dreadful offences against innocent and vulnerable children.

We expect the UN to demonstrate the highest possible standards of protection for children, including actions to prevent abuse, investigation of all allegations, and to insist on prosecution for those who commit these crimes. And we need to see progress on this reported annually.

We work with a number of civil society organisations, academic institutions and experts in the field to ensure our policies in the UK are fit for purpose.

Academic research and civil society input has proved crucial in enabling us to understand more about preventing sexual violence in conflict; and this information helps to inform future needs.

By providing advice, research, expertise and knowledge, you have also, quite rightly, questioned the policies of the UN and the Governments where necessary. Ultimately we all have the same goal and therefore we should be able to work together to reach that goal, even if that means that sometimes the debates are vigorous!

Gender has to be factored into many different aspects of peacekeeping. Women’s involvement is critical for effective engagement with local communities and meeting their protection and security needs, especially those of children, as well as contributing to prevention of renewed conflict. If you talk to women in a community they will tell you why they are frightened. Women in the peacekeeping workforce can help inspire change and create an enabling and inclusive environment where women in the community are encouraged to participate in decision making. This lays the foundations for the protection of the children of the community

But we should never forget that sexual violence is not just about women and girls – it happens to men and boys too; however, that is an even more taboo subject and there are hardly ever any resources to help them.

I remember in Rwanda meeting a young man of about 24 who had been a victim of sexual abuse in the genocide. He was very damaged and had been shunned by his community.

The UK fully supports the zero tolerance approach to sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) as championed by the UN Secretary-General. Last year the UK government pledged £50 million over five years to tackle violence against children globally, the first £10m of this will fund a global programme to tackle online child sexual exploitation in 17 countries.

The UK has made it a priority to tackle the abhorrent actions of these individuals. They cannot be allowed to sully the relationship between the majority of peacekeepers and development officials who are doing a wonderful job, and the vulnerable populations they serve.

We in the UK, will encourage the UNSG to waive immunity and encourage prosecutions by bringing serious cases of SEA to the attention of appropriate domestic authorities (where acceptable judicial processes and sentencing exist), as they currently do with serious fraud offences.

We want to see progress made on improving the suitability of those deployed, Troops and other personnel properly vetted and trained. And we want to see more countries following best practice as outlined in the research we will hear about this afternoon. Countries and institutions can learn from each other and support each other in meeting the highest standards, and in designing a reporting system that communities will trust, and ensuring a stronger UN response to proven allegations. We will support an information-sharing mechanism to prevent those found guilty of SEA from moving around the UN system, and assist UN HR teams with support in identifying suspicious posting

Troop Contributing Countries with allegations made against them must carry out investigations promptly, transparently and report their findings to the UN. Commanders must not allow their troops to commit offences with impunity – they must be held accountable for the actions of their troops and personnel. I recognise that what most of us consider to be crimes are not always designated as such in some of the countries who contribute personnel to the UN. All those who have signed up to the various Human Rights Conventions have accepted that these are crimes. We will do our utmost to work with other Governments and Parliaments to encourage them to embed these offences into their criminal law and to prosecute perpetrators from their countries.

In conclusion, we share a common goal and that goal is to eliminate sexual exploitation and abuse and to protect children. They may not have a voice of their own but we are in a position to articulate their fears and needs and ensure that the UN, its agencies and other countries take their responsibilities seriously.

It is only by working together we can make it happen.