International Day of UN Peacekeepers

An article by MP for Totnes and Chair of the APPG on the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative on the International Day of UN Peacekeepers.

One of my earliest memories was standing in the arrivals lounge of RAF Brize Norton waiting with my mother and brothers for my father to return from his six-month tour of Bosnia. I can’t recall my feelings or thoughts at the time, but I can clearly recall the moment a stream of blue-bereted soldiers came through a heavy set of doors leading from the runway. 

Their tour of Bosnia under General Sir Michael Rose was as hazardous and dangerous as you might have expected. From the continual attempts of a Serbian sniper to mortar fire and everything in between. At that age I was unable to understand the politics of the Balkans, nor was I able to comprehend the scale of the crimes committed by the likes of Karadžić and Milošević. 

Yet I understood the simple idea that these blue-hatted soldiers were on a peacekeeping mission with the aim of ending a conflict and providing humanitarian assistance. Twenty-five years on I find myself in a position to be able to speak out about the need for the UK to do more in its prevention of conflict and provision of humanitarian assistance.

Today is the International Day of United Nations (UN) Peacekeepers, with this year focused on the importance of women peacekeepers. In 2015, the UN passed Resolution 2242 calling for the doubling of women in uniformed peacekeeping operations. Last year the Secretary General António Guterres launched the ‘Global Call’, a second outreach campaign to increase female representation in peace work. That call was answered; 152 nations pledged their support.

Simply put, women in peacekeeping roles alter the performance of peacekeeping missions. Their deployment in the field sees markedly improved operation and performance outcomes. Female peacekeepers have better access to populations in both war-torn and crisis-ridden areas. Their engagement with survivors of sexual violence has generated insight and documentation of crimes that would have previously gone unseen and unsolved.  

Perhaps most critically, the inclusion of women on the frontline of peacekeeping missions is helping prevent and answer for the horrific reports of UN peacekeepers themselves having committed rape while on deployment. 

The success of the initiative to drive up the number of women peacekeepers has been undeniable; this year the first ever Pakistani female engagement team was awarded a UN medal for their work in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Their mission has centred around the support for survivors of sexual violence, including health and psychological support. 

Rebuilding trust and faith in the UN and its peacekeeping forces will take time. But the right steps are being taken. 

The world’s attention has been grabbed by one epidemic yet there is another plague that is widespread and has been prevalent for centuries, that of gender-based violence (GBV). At times of crisis and conflict we know that levels of gender-based violence soar. In the UK we have been acutely aware of the increases in domestic violence cases during the Covid crisis. Just imagine for one second what is going on in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh or in Zaatari, Jordan refugee camps. 

Christina Lamb’s book Our Bodies, Their Battlefield documents the use of rape as a weapon of war from the so-called “comfort women” of the Second World War to the present-day plight of the Yazidi and Rohingya women. It shines a light on the international community’s inaction and the devastating impact it has on the survivors and their communities.

Yet the United Kingdom has had some success in attempting to tackle this issue. In 2012, the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative (PSVI) was created to ‘end rape as a weapon of war and shatter the culture of impunity’. 156 nations signed our declaration at the United Nations and committed themselves to combatting rape as tool of war. Yet sadly in recent years the ambition of our initial commitment appears to have withered. It cannot be allowed to regress further. 

The UN’s call for more female peacekeepers must serve as our rallying call to champion the prevention of gender-based violence. In a world of rapidly shape shifting international politics, we are embarking upon a new era of foreign policy. A Global Britain must be one that puts humanitarian work at is core. 

The success of our work in Kosovo, Bosnia, Sierra Leone and East Timor are not readily cited, but they are shining examples of international engagement, humanitarian assistance provision and peacekeeping. Those conflicts have undoubtedly forged the ambitions of Prime Ministers and Foreign Secretaries over the years, from Theresa May’s work on child slavery, to the Prime Minister’s work on women’s education and William Hague’s preventing sexual violence initiatives. Each of these initiatives must be individually developed and strengthened with long term goals, funding and support.  

It is essential to recognise that these initiatives are not exclusive of one another but intertwined with overlapping objectives. The Prime Minister’s own work on the empowerment of girls and women is now under huge threat due to schools across the world being closed. How many of those women and girls are likely to return to their education? How many are likely to be subjected to abuse and sexual violence?

It is important to remember that peace is not just the absence of conflict but the presence of justice. As the UN renews its calls for more peacekeepers, we should ringfence a proportion of our aid budget to combat gender-based violence and inequalities. Creating an international body to document and prosecute GBV crimes would also send a clear message of action and strengthen the international communities’ resolve.