U.S. May Shift Gears on Human Rights Training to Peacekeepers


Over the past year, the legacy and reputation of UN Peacekeeping missions across the African continent have been increasingly marred by scandals involving abuse of the civilian populations they were deployed to protect. Human Rights Watch detailed peacekeepers in the Central African Republic murdering at least 18 people while also bringing to light allegations of sexual abuse of civilians by AMISOM peacekeepers in Somalia. In a damning critique of the response to the abuse, UN whistleblower Anders Kompass resigned in protest, claiming that peacekeepers commit human rights violations with “complete impunity.” Despite these revelations and many other older allegations of abuse, the United States allocated few resources to training peacekeepers on the laws and standards related to human rights, but this under focus may be changing.

The 1999 authorization of UNAMSIL Peacekeepers in Sierra Leone to use force to protect civilians marked an important turning point for UN peacekeeping operations in Africa and across the globe. Now, peacekeepers had an explicit “protection of civilians” mandate—and the means by which to enforce that mandate. Yet, UNAMSIL was not the humanitarian revolution in peacekeeping that many observers hoped it would be, and instead UNAMSIL peacekeepers were implicated in instances of sexual violence. Sadly, UNAMSIL was not the last UN Mission to be plagued by sexual violence. Sixty-four allegations of rape would emerge in 2004 alone during the MONUSCO mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and such violations continue to be an unfortunate staple of UN peacekeeping.

Recognizing the need for UN peacekeepers to be better trained and equipped in all aspects of their mission, the State Department began a security assistance program called Peacekeeping Operations (PKO) in 2006.  PKO was—and still is—a wide umbrella program that, according to State Department data, requested $495.2 million in FY 2016 to “[strengthen] international capabilities to effectively execute [United Nations] and regional peace operations.” While a large part of PKO funds are allocated to initiatives such as the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership Initiative and support for the African Union mission in Somalia, $300 million was allocated to activities that support international peacekeeping efforts.

Within the PKO funds dedicated to peacekeeping, the United States provides training to peacekeepers on a wide range issues such as logistics, tactical military skills like marksmanship, and the protection of civilians. In doing so, PKO money provides for African security forces to receive training from a variety of instructors in a variety of locations with the overall aim being to increase the efficacy of African soldiers and police officers in peacekeeping operations. This is welcome news to UN commanders as the number of peacekeeping missions on the continent increases—with nine peacekeeping missions ongoing in Africa. 

As peacekeeping operations have become more prevalent in Africa, so too have the kinds of allegations that plagued earlier missions. As documented by the United Nations Conduct and Discipline Unit, peacekeeping operations in Africa have been the subject of roughly 450 separate allegations of sexual abuse or exploitation since 2007 (but due to the way that the UN classifies certain sexual encounters, this number could actually be much higher). There have also been 94 allegations of UN peacekeepers committing serious criminal acts unrelated to the issue of pervasive sexual abuse, such as allegations of UNAMID peacekeepers unlawfully killing civilians in Darfur.

Despite these allegations of human rights violations and other types of abuse, the United States provided very little training on courses focused on the laws and norms to prevent such abuse in the past few years. According to the State Department’s Foreign Military Training Report, the United States spent a mere $142,212 of PKO funds to cover courses on the protection of civilians for 105 African military or police personnel in FY 2014, including $18,918 for training on gender-based violence. To put this in perspective, the State Department allocated more than more 50 times that amount—roughly $6.3 million—to fund courses for over 8,000 trainees that were primarily focused on either “hard” military skills (e.g. mortar and tank operations) or operational and logistical skills. While a few of the key tactical training courses such as the Peace Support Operations – Solider Skill Training course may have included some elements of human rights training, it appears this training was minimal.

According to U.S. officials involved in UN peacekeeping training in Africa, they are in the process of increasing and improving human rights-related training they provide as part of U.S. funded tactical or operational training. These improvements would likely include greater case examples and scenarios for students to better illustrate practical human rights issues that peacekeepers face in the field. At the same time, Defense Department officials have highlighted that they will prioritize enhancing military justice systems to deal with gender-based violence in Africa as they have done in the Democratic Republic of Congo. However, it is unclear if the new strategy for U.S. peacekeeping aid has identified human rights training as an area in need of improvement. In past strategy documents, the U.S. government did not identify human rights training as a shortcoming in need of targeted improvement.

The bottom line is that PKO-funded human rights and protection of civilians training must increase across the board.  It’s difficult to see how it shouldn’t increase, as funding for protection of civilian courses in Africa only made up .018 percent of overall PKO spending in FY 2014. However as noted above, the United States government has announced its intentions to integrate human rights more into its core peacekeeping training activities, a welcome move that must be accompanied by robust follow-through to tackle the issues of human rights abuses by peacekeepers. By increasing the type of funding and integrating the training into the larger body of UN peacekeeping missions, important steps can be taken to ensure that peacekeeping missions serve the populations who so desperately deserve better protection.

Jared Thompson is an intern at the Security Assistance Monitor where he covers security issues in Sub-Sahran Africa.

Research was assisted by former SAM intern, Alexis Kedo.