Paper special envoys and Peacekeepers’ abuse
Last week, Angelina Jolie made an unpublicised appearance at the UN peacekeeping summit – unpublicised, that is, until her speech, in which she highlighted the issue of sexual abuse by peacekeeping forces, was reported on and praised. But far from being a powerful critique that held the UN to account, this was a missed opportunity. The role of celebrity special envoys has been questioned by people who feel that it is self-serving on the part of the young, white, conventionally attractive women who typically take on these positions. Jolie failed to answer these critics.
In her speech, Jolie called for the peacekeepers who’ve perpetrated sexual abuse to be prosecuted. For this minimalist statement, she has been applauded. ‘This is why Angelina Jolie believes the UN is failing women and children in conflict’, reads the Refinery 29 headline. But as a critique, it was sadly lacking. UN peacekeeping is not undermined, as Jolie claimed, by ‘a few intolerable cases’. It is undermined by systemic and underreported violation by peacekeepers of the very people they are supposed to protect. In 2016, Media Diversified began the Predatory Peacekeepers campaign to highlight the prevalence of abuse by UN peacekeepers. They have highlighted the widespread, and long-term, nature of such abuse, which an independent investigation found to be systematic as far back as 2005. These are not isolated cases.
The UN, to its credit, has acknowledged that the issue is deep-rooted. UN Security Council Resolution 2272, adopted in March 2016, noted the ‘serious and continuous allegations’ of sexual abuse perpetrated by peacekeeping forces. This has come only after threats to prosecute a whistleblower on the extent of abuse (which have since been withdrawn). Given the patchy history of UN resolutions – those demanding the protection of women and girls in conflict have proved sadly inadequate according to most commentators – this clearly is no silver bullet. It is not enough but it is something.
And it goes further than Jolie did. As someone who purports to know about the abuse of women and children in conflict, she should be aware that it is systematic. Soldiers enact violence on women during war at an even greater rate than men enact violence on women during peace. Add to this the difference in power between UN troops and often-poor local populations, and it is clear that the space communities and individuals have to hold their abusers to account is minimal. The UN has a duty to tackle a system which not only allows the abuse to take place but which also silences those within the system who try to speak out – let alone the survivors of abuse (or the families of those who do not survive). Jolie had a duty to demand this.
Angelina Jolie does not need the UN. She has a powerful public image in her own right, including a role as guest lecturer in the Women in Peace and Security programme at the London School of Economics. By speaking about abuse by peacekeepers, Angelina Jolie had the opportunity to demand that the UN take concrete steps to tackle not just individual cases of abuse, but to enact real cultural change within the system.
Instead, her statement was watered down and pandering. Jolie has the advantage, by not being employed by the UN but instead being a celebrity and personality in her own right, to make strong critical statements that people within the UN might find harder due the silencing they experience within the system. If she truly believes in the work she is doing to protect women and girls in conflict, she should use her platform to this end. Drawing attention to such issues is the purpose of her role. If this means going against the UN, she should do so, even if it means losing her position as special envoy. She does not need the UN: rather, the UN needs her to draw attention to the work it does, to raise and improve its public image. This gives her the opportunity to hold the system to account. By not taking this chance, she has given the impression that this is nothing more than a paper role – a role for self-aggrandisement. Ironically, this also weakens the UN’s public image, as yet another of its special envoys fails to live up to the role.