Sex and UN peacekeepers: Tens of thousands of Liberian women involved?


United Nations Building New York

EXCLUSIVE: A study cited in a just-published evaluation of the ugly problem of sexual exploitation by U.N. peacekeepers calculates that as many as 58,000 women in Monrovia, Liberia, alone engaged in prohibited “transactional” sex with peacekeepers in return for food, clothing, money or other favors—mostly money– over a nine-year period ending in 2012.

By contrast, in 2012, the United Nations peacekeeping force in Liberia, or UNMIL, reported just nine substantiated allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse, out of 61 such allegations across all such U.N. missions, according to an annual report put out the following year by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s office.

The huge chasm between those numbers—one set from the U.N., the other from a study financed in large measure by the government of Sweden –is certain to keep fanning skepticism about under-reporting, flawed investigation methods, resistance to investigation and a culture of impunity toward sexual offenses in U.N. peacekeeping. They also help to underline tensions between various branches of the U.N. itself over how to cope with the sexual abuse problem.

The 2012 study was based on a carefully weighted survey of 1,381 Liberian households, and involved detailed questions for 475 women between the ages of 18 and 30, including questions about the age when they first engaged in quid-pro-quo sexual behavior. The results were then extrapolated across the areas of the Liberian capital of Monrovia where the selected households were located.

The researchers called their findings “stunning.” The study concluded that about just under one-half of all the women surveyed said they had engaged in transactional sex and roughly three-quarters of those sexually active women —or more than a third of the overall queried female population aged 18 to 30—had such relations with U.N. personnel, who have been a major presence in Liberia since 2003.

“The data we have collected show unambiguously that transactional sex with U.N. personnel is a ubiquitous life experience among young women in Monrovia,” the study declares.

There is an even darker side to the “ubiquitous life experience.” Among other things, the survey reveals that a great many of the 18-to-30-year-old women who exchanged sex for valuables were under age 18 when they first began to do so—some 58 percent of the sample. And about 5.7 percent of the overall sample who provided their age revealed that they were under 14 years old when they began their “transactional” sex.

The survey questionnaire did not ask how many of these women were active with U.N. partners while they were under-age.

However, according to Michael Gilligan, a professor of politics at New York University whose research team carried out the two-month study, “it is not an outlandish assumption” that thousands of the women involved with peacekeepers were significantly under-aged.

“Transactional” sex is prohibited for all U.N. staffers and “United Nations forces conducting operations under United Nations command and control” by a 2003 bulletin from the U.N. Secretary General. The ban covers the “exchange of money, employment, goods or services for sex, including sexual favors or other forms of humiliating, degrading or exploitative behavior.”

Another section of the Secretary General’s order bans sex by U.N. personnel with anyone under the age of 18, “regardless of the age of majority or age of consent locally.” A senior U.N. official told Fox News that sex with anyone under age 18 is considered to be non-consensual rape.

“I would bet the farm on our numbers,” Gilligan told Fox News. He added that they clearly show that “the current system is not working.”

The survey was specifically conducted in order to bring some scientific method to studying the “actual magnitude” of the U.N. sexual exploitation problem, as opposed to the “anecdotal” testimony of victims, whose accusations are often vetted by U.N. personnel, or investigated by countries that supplied the peacekeeping troops in the first place.

The research for Gilligan’s study was financed not by the U.N., but in large measure by Sweden’s Folke Bernadotte Academy, the Swedish government’s official agency for “peace, security and development.”

The survey did not attempt to determine how many U.N. peacekeepers or other staff members—as opposed to local women– were engaged in prohibited sexual activity. However, the study notes, “it seems reasonable to suspect that this number is large, given the large share of women reporting transactional sex with U.N. personnel,” and the limited duration of most peacekeeping deployments.

We have every reason to believe our evidence is very, very finely tuned,” Gilligan told Fox News.

The 80-pageLiberian study was briefly acknowledged mid-way through a 53-page evaluation of the U.N.’s efforts to tackle the sexual exploitation issue by the organization’s internal watchdog, the Office of Internal Oversight Services, or OIOS, made public on June 15.

The OIOS evaluation, which took 18 months to complete, noted that the non-U.N study had concluded that “over one-quarter“ of Monrovia’s women between 18 and 30 had engaged in transactional sex by U.N. peacekeepers, and observed that the “widespread violation” depicted in the survey “would necessarily imply under-reporting” of banned sexual transgressions.

The OIOS document did not take note of the substantial percentages of under-age sex revealed in the non-U.N. survey.

The rest of the OIOS study was more plain-spoken than the U.N. customarily is in describing the peacekeeping sexual abuse morass.

Among many other things, it noted:

  • buck-passing behavior by U.N. departments and missions over who was responsible for reacting to sexual abuse allegations;
  • minimal responses when action was finally taken: between 2008 and 2012, the evaluation observed, a grand total of nine civilians and police personnel were referred to “national authorities” for prosecution;
  • a subsequent “data gap” on what those national authorities did next;
  • foot-dragging by peacekeeping missions in referring allegations for investigation;
  • “risk of loss of evidence/witness tampering” amid the delays;
  • slow action and even refusal to act on the part of missions regarding allegations of sexual abuse;
  • the refusal of troop-supplying countries to let the U.N. know within a 10-day limit whether they were investigating wrong-doing by members of their military contingents;
  • An observed “irreconcilable conflict of interest in requesting national investigators to investigate their own troops;”
  • slow investigations by OIOS itself when called on to do so (average investigation time: 16 months);
  • an admission that the U.N. has behaved “very poorly” in terms of help for victims of sexual abuse: only 26 out of 217 acknowledged victims of such abuse “have been referred for assistance and of those referred, little is known what assistance, in reality, was provided to them.”

For the first time, the OIOS evaluation also itemized a short list of countries whose uniformed troops had committed officially “substantiated” acts of sexual exploitation and abuse between 2010 and 2013.

The top offender: South Africa, with 9 “substantiated” cases. The second-place offender: Uruguay, with eight cases, followed by Nigeria, with seven.

In all, however, the “substantiated” total came to just 64 cases.


The OIOS evaluation also records regretful reactions to the report from the U.N.’s departments of peacekeeping operations and field support—the core of peacekeeping—even as those bureaucracies asserted that they “remain fully committed to ensuring that the Secretary-General’s zero tolerance policy towards sexual exploitation and abuse by United Nations personnel is comprehensively implemented in all peacekeeping missions.”


The peacekeepers point out that they had created “an accountability framework containing refined indicators of performance in the areas of prevention, enforcement and remedial action” in peacekeeping missions, “ along with a specific risk assessment framework for sexual exploitation and abuse.

Overall, they said, efforts at better training and prevention “ are having a positive impact.”

The peacekeeping departments also objected to the OIOS naming of countries with “substantiated allegations” of abuse – “which does not take into consideration that thousands of personnel were deployed over that period and that Member States with a greater number of allegations are amongst those deploying the greatest number of troops.”

The conclusion to be drawn from Liberia, however, seems to be that the problem is much, much bigger than that.

George Russell is editor-at-large of Fox News and can be found on Twitter: @GeorgeRussell or on Russell