Luissa Vahedi joins the CHIBOW website for a guest blog post to discuss her current research in the field.
In 1989 the United Nations (UN) adopted Resolution 45/25: The Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). Accordingly, children are recognized as inherent and inalienable right holders irrespective of parental and child legal citizenship or race, in addition to gender, socioeconomic status, and ethnicity (UN General Assembly, 1989). The UN mandates that member states who have ratified the UNCRC act in the best interest of the child by respecting and ensuring the rights set by the convention. Such rights include the right to “the provision of necessary medical assistance and health care … with emphasis on the development of primary care” (UN General Assembly, 1989, Article 24), “forms of secondary education, including general and vocational education” (UN General Assembly, 1989, Article 28) and “the [provision] of material assistance and support programmes, particularly with regard to nutrition, clothing and housing” (UN General Assembly, 1989, Article 27).
Children born of war and conflict are particularly vulnerable with respect to the implementation of UNCRC. One particular group of children born of war and conflict are “peace babies” – children fathered by UN peacekeeping personnel and born to civilian females who reside in countries that host peace operations. The first publically-reported and acknowledged children fathered by peacekeepers were conceived during the United Nations Mission in East Timor between 1999 and 2000 (Simić & O’Brien, 2014). In addition, during the United Nations Mission in Liberia over 6,000 children were registered as being children of peacekeepers (Rehn & Sirleaf, 2002; Simić & O’Brien, 2014). Compared to the phenomenon of sex with peacekeepers, peace babies have received little empirical research and policy attention. However, recent media attention, most notably from The Conversation, New York Times, Washington Post, has shed light on the existing empirical research being conducted internationally to better understand the life course perspectives of children fathered by UN peacekeepers.
Using the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) as a case study, my research explores the complex lived experiences of Haitian women who engaged sexually with peacekeepers subsequently resulting in the conception and birth of a child. This qualitative research paralleled my master’s thesis in social epidemiology, supervised by Dr. Susan Bartels and Dr. Heather Stuart, where I analyzed (i) the geographical distribution of sexual misconduct perpetrated by MINUSTAH peacekeepers and (ii) the impact of experiencing sexual abuse and exploitation on Haitian’s willingness to engage with the UN. Collectively, the findings from scholarship that analyzes children fathered by peacekeepers contribute to a holistic understanding of peace babies that advocates for their inherent and inalienable rights.
Peacekeeping operations have been the subject of controversy. Allegations of peacekeepers involved in sex trafficking (involving both adults and children), sexual assault, sexual exploitation, and sexual abuse are widespread (Westendorf & Searle, 2017). Children fathered by peacekeepers are conceived as a result of a variety of sexual encounters with peacekeepers (Simić & O’Brien, 2014; Vahedi, Bartels, & Lee, 2019). While the UN’s recognized forms of sexual violence– sexual abuse and sexual exploitation are certainly at play—empirical research has shown that sexual interactions with peacekeepers are more nuanced.
Among women who have the capacity of consent to sexual activity in their host country, transactional dating relationships and monogamous relationships imbedded in feelings of love have been reported (Lee & Bartels, 2019; Vahedi et al., 2019). However, such relationships do not occur within a vacuum: sex with peacekeepers occurs within a particular socio-economic system that disproportionately benefits male peacekeepers (K. Jennings & Nikolić-Ristanović, 2009). Peacekeepers have more leverage and power in sexual encounters with host-country civilians due to their immunity from host country prosecution (Simm, 2013). In addition, relative to the host country, peacekeepers are well-paid and participate in transactional sex: the non-commercial, non-martial exchange of goods and materials within a dating relationship (K. M. Jennings, 2014; Stoebenau, Heise, Wamoyi, & Bobrova, 2016). Consequently, children fathered by peacekeepers are also born to women who maintained long-term monogamous dating relationships with peacekeepers. Such sexual encounters are concomitant with the norms and expectations of transactional sex and the larger socio-economic system that peacekeeping operations are imbedded in (Vahedi et al., 2019). While it is important to understand and classify the variety of sexual encounters between UN peacekeepers and local women/girls, this venture does not in it of itself advance advocacy efforts to improve the life trajectories of the implicated children.
The framing of peace babies as a direct consequence of sexual abuse and exploitation originates from the UN’s zero-tolerance policy and Resolution 62/214: A Comprehensive Strategy on Assistance and Support to Victims of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse by United Nations Staff and Related Personnel. According to this resolution, children entitled to support from the UN are those “found by a competent national authority to have been born as a result of acts of sexual exploitation and abuse by UN staff or related personnel” (United Nations, 2008, p. 3). Furthermore, Resolution 62/214 states such children should receive assistance and support to addresses the medical, legal, psychological, and social consequences directly arising from the sexual exploitation and abuse experienced by their mothers. In light of criminal immunity granted by the Status of Forces agreement, the financial and legal role of the UN with respect to peace babies is that of a liaison between the host county and the troop/police contributing country.
By largely excluding non-exploitative and non-abusive civilian-peacekeeper sexual relationships from its policies (such as long-term monogamous transactional relationships), the UN frames peace babies as children conceived through inherently exploitative and abusive relationships. Consequently, children born from non-exploitative, non-abusive, or unsubstantiated relationships are excluded within the UN’s policy framework in terms of legal and financial support (Simić & O’Brien, 2014).
Regardless of whether sexual interactions resulting in the conception of peace babies fall under the UN’s classification of sexual abuse/exploitation, cohorts of children and teenagers fathered by peacekeepers in Haiti exist today, and they will not remain children forever. Existing resolutions, such as UNCRC, are difficult to leverage with respect to supporting the needs of children fathered by peacekeepers because of their precarious position with respect to existing international agreements between the UN, host countries, and the peacekeepers’ country of origin. Their developmental needs are not halted to allow for the creation and implementation of appropriate policies and programs. What is essential to note is that children fathered by peacekeepers are children like any other: they have rights to health care, education, housing, and food. Currently, they live, play, and grow in contexts where their potential is not allowed to flourish: paternity claims formally reported to the UN have been slow to materialize into child support and the children carry the label of: “child of the MINUSTAH” within their communities.
Where are children fathered by peacekeepers situated within the international discourse pertaining to The Convention on the Rights of the Child? Are peacekeepers the perpetrators of additional insecurity with respect to the children they leave behind once they are deployed home? Who is to be held accountable? These questions, alongside others, are at the forefront of the research agenda.