UN Peacekeeping in Africa Book Review

2015 and 2016 saw a bumper crop of UN peace architecture reform proposals. These included three blockbuster reviews of UN peace operations and architecture: the High Level Independent Panel on UN Peace Operations (HIPPO), the Advisory Group of Experts on Peacebuilding (AGE), and the UN Global Study on Women, Peace and Security.1“Report of the High-Level Independent Panel on United Nations Peace Operations,” UN document A/70/95-S/2015/446, 17 June, 2015; Advisory Group of Experts for the 2015 Review of United Nations Peacebuilding Architecture, “The Challenge of Sustaining Peace,” 29 June 2015, available at http://www.un.org/pga/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2015/07/300615_The-Challenge-of-Sustaining-Peace.pdf; and UN Women, Preventing Conflict, Transforming Justice, Securing the Peace (New York: UN Women, 2015). Also released were reports by the Independent Commission on Multilateralism and the Commission on Global Security, Justice and Governance.2Independent Commission on Multilateralism, “Pulling together: the Multilateral System and its Future,” September 21, 2016, https://www.icm2016.org/; The Commission on Global Security, Justice and Governance, “Confronting the Crisis of Global Governance,” June 16, 2015, http://www.stimson.org/content/report-commission-global-security-justice-governance. In response, the African Union encouraged its own review of peace operations.3The World Peace Foundation, African Politics, African Peace (The Fletcher School, Tufts University, 2016), https://sites.tufts.edu/wpf/files/2017/05/WPF-African-Politics-African-Peace.pdf. The message across all of the reviews is clear—the UN has to make some necessary changes in order to more effectively respond to the complex threats of the twenty-first century.

Kwame Akonor’s UN Peacekeeping in Africa arrives at a propitious moment. More than half of UN peace operations are in Africa and the majority of personnel deployed in UN peacekeeping operations in Africa are drawn from African states. UN Peacekeeping in Africa provides a useful overview of UN peace operations in the region, but the real value of the book is its focus on the perennial problem of sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) carried out by those charged with protecting the peace. It also offers carefully considered suggestions for how to address the issue.

Akonor reviews the literature on SEA and identifies four explanatory factors for why peacekeeping abuses take place and why abusers rarely face criminal prosecution. The first is the hyper-masculinity prevalent within military culture which often makes troops physically aggressive and gives them a proclivity for protecting each other against civilian complaints. Akonor points to two additional factors that create what he calls a permissive environment for abuse—the first is economic deprivation, as in most peacekeeping contexts, poverty is endemic, which leaves populations vulnerable to exploitation of all types; another is the variation in cultural and legal systems among troop-contributing countries. Even where prosecutors may be willing to try peacekeepers in domestic courts, they may not have the means to gather evidence or interview victims in other countries. The final factor, which Akonor notes is less prevalent in the literature, is that the physical and psychological impact of conflict on civilians can make them more vulnerable to SEA, as their victimization may make them more likely to tolerate SEA in exchange for protection.

Given the challenge of holding peacekeepers accountable for abuses, Akonor argues that the most effective way to address peacekeeper misconduct is to create a “culture of change and accountability,” in spite of the absence of universal legal codes of prosecution. He bases his argument on four empirical cases across the region: DRC (Central Africa); Darfur (Western Sudan); Sierra Leone (West Africa); and Somalia (Horn of Africa).

The book argues that African countries ought to be “trend-setters and demonstrate exemplary leadership” in recognition of the risks and sacrifices of African peacekeepers. This should be done by enforcing a strict disciplinary code, especially when it comes to SEA. Africans, the book argues, cannot on the one hand blame the undemocratic standards and selective application of the international legal regime, to which Africans themselves have voluntarily signed on to, and then grant themselves immunity from prosecution in their regional human court: the African Court of Justice and Human Rights.

What is needed according to Akonor, is a real Pax Africana, as Ali Mazrui conceived of it: Africans assuming responsibility for the maintenance of peace and security on the continent to ensure continental jurisdiction over Africa’s collective security, as opposed to looking for extra-regional solutions. However, as the author notes, Africa’s lack of clear consensus on security issues, as well as its lack of financial and operational resources, may impede the achievement of this goal.

A more provocative recommendation is Akonor’s suggestion that serious consideration be given to the creation of an ad hoc (or even permanent) international tribunal or special UN court for SEA, to which troop contributing countries would be signatories. This would expand the current scope of war crimes to include sexual crimes committed by troop contingents serving as peacekeepers on foreign soil, and would help standardize the laws by criminalizing such behavior for both civilian and military personnel in UN missions. He claims that this proposal may not be so implausible as there is precedent for universal jurisdiction for SEA crimes, citing as an example the decision by the Dutch Supreme Court that held the Netherlands responsible for the deaths of three Bosnian Muslim men during the 1995 Srebrenica massacre. However, given the self-inflicted wounds of the International Criminal Court, now partially discredited in Africa due to perceived politicization; and the exorbitant costs of earlier special courts, this recommendation is not likely to see the light of day anytime soon.

UN Peacekeeping in Africa is a thoughtful, in-depth discussion of the problem of SEA, particularly in the context of peacekeeping in Africa. It merits a read by anyone interested in making peacekeeping operations more effective and people-focused.

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