Peacekeeping and gender

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Swarna Rajagopalan, Guardians stray from the straight path, New Indian Express, Chennai, August 25, 2008.

[The URL is not stable, so here is the text and correct citation.]

The exemplary record of India’s peacekeeping troops is in danger, and thus, one of its claims to good global citizenship.

An internal UN investigation has reported that some Indian peacekeepers in the Congo supported and perhaps even participated in a child prostitution racket near their base camp. Involving over a hundred officers, these charges follow earlier reports that Indian soldiers had been involved with gold and drug smugglers and that an Indian officer was publicly expressing support for one rebel group—charges that pale in comparison to the recent allegations.

The Indian army’s investigation has already begun, and experts underscore the fact that this is an aberration in India’s record. India has readily contributed troops to several of the stickiest UN peacekeeping operations since 1950 and is among the top three contributors to UN peacekeeping operations worldwide.

Thousands of Indian soldiers have served as observers, combat troops, medical missions, election observers, mine experts and engineers in operations that have claimed several Indian lives. In Somalia, Indian and Pakistani peacekeeping troops worked together to offer humanitarian assistance to local communities. In Liberia, a contingent of female paramilitary troops provides security to the President in addition to participating in field operations. With its store of experience, India now offers peacekeeping training.

In the UN peacekeeping operation in the Democratic Republic of Congo, India and Pakistan have the largest contingents in the mission. Set up in 1999 to implement the Lusaka Accord which ended the civil war in Congo, the mission is currently engaged with the disarmament, demobilization, repatriation, resettlement and reintegration of combatants as well as the transition to democracy. India has contributed both military and police personnel to this mission.

One crude and callous response to allegations of physical abuse by soldiers and one that does no credit to any serious army is that such incidents are inevitable given the stresses and strains of military operations, especially when soldiers are stationed far away from their families. To be fair, this dismissal is rarely offered as serious analysis or justification—but one does hear it.

More thoughtfully, it is suggested that lust and aggression are products of the same bio-chemical process and therefore, keeping the balance between self-control and the aggression that army work requires is hard. But the Indian army takes great pride in its socialization of its soldiers and in the various efforts it makes to minimize the possibility of such incidents. One learns that they offer counseling, yoga, sports and service activities to occupy soldiers in these circumstances. So what happened in the Congo? The Indian people also need to express concern over the reasons and results uncovered by the army investigation.

Sexual abuse and exploitation are intrinsically offensive. Where the accused carry arms, and carry them with the sanction of a state, however, these actions occur in the context of a very unequal relationship. UN peacekeeping troops, like colonial troops in another era and occupying troops in other contexts, are outsiders invested not just with weapons but also with the sanction of the international community. They are there as outsiders to impose or oversee the imposition of an order that is tenuous and likely, contentious. Peacekeepers are better-fed and better-stocked with essentials, to say nothing of better-paid, than most people in the communities that surround. The ability to barter food and supplies for sex may make them even more powerful in this context than the possession of arms.

Such huge differences make even the possibility of consensual relationships between adults debatable. What chance does a small girl or boy, a frightened adolescent have to resist rape or trafficking? It is this that places sexual abuse by military personnel, in war, in counter-insurgency or peacekeeping operations, beyond the pale and right on the same continuum as incest and child sexual abuse within the home, street and workplace sexual harassment and other forms of gender-based violence.

Responsible militaries (or police) in a democracy need to investigate and punish offenders in a transparent fashion, a requirement minimally met by a press release. Responsible parliamentarians, male or female, need to raise this issue disregarding the ‘morale’ bogey. Responsible citizens, male or female, need to keep vigil even when a story slips off newspaper pages. For good soldiers, parliamentarians and citizens alike, good morale rests in doing what is right and not stuffing dirty laundry under the bed.

As such charges crop up against the military and paramilitary, at home and abroad, and investigations fade into the shadows of tomorrow’s headlines, what are Indian women to make of soldiers that also fight in their name?

When this Pandora’s box opens, it will release all kinds of uncomfortable questions within both family and polity. Because Indian soldiers everywhere fight in the name of all Indians, Indian women will need to ask whether these actions speak for them: child sexual exploitation, trafficking, smuggling. They must ask whether Indian soldiers regard Indian women, girls and boys to be as usable and dispensable as they apparently did those in the Congo—and acknowledge that ‘yes’ and ‘no’ are both unpalatable answers. They must doubt the foundations of their own family life for if male soldiers cannot be true to their training and orders, their other loyalties may also be weak. And if Indian women fail to vigilantly follow the investigation and its findings, they must reflect on their own culpability in making such behavior possible.

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