‘I don’t think people learned the lesson from [UNTAC]’

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Documentation Centre of Cambodia scholar So Farina. Bennett Murray

‘I don’t think people learned the lesson from [UNTAC]’

In 1992, the UN secretary-general’s special representative to Cambodia, Yasushi Akashi, sparked outrage when he said in response to concerns about the sexual misconduct by UNTAC peacekeepers that it was “natural” for soldiers in the field to chase “young beautiful beings of the opposite sex”.

A UN report leaked in May and officially made public this week suggests such attitudes haven’t gone away since the UNTAC days. “Staff with long mission experience,” read the document, which focused on peacekeeper South Sudan, Liberia, Haiti and the Democratic Republic of Congo, “stated there was a ‘general view that people should have romantic rights’.” At least 229 women in Haiti alone were reported to have traded sex for food and medication, while a third of 480 worldwide allegations between 2008 and 2013 involved minors.

In light of the new allegations, Bennett Murray spoke with Documentation Centre of Cambodia scholar So Farina on the commonalities between the UN abuse of today and historically.

Has much been done to address sexual misconduct since the UNTAC era?

I don’t think people learned the lesson from the UNTAC period much, and we need to see if a new problem compared to the UNTAC period has arisen, or if it’s the old problem just in a different context, so we can use our lesson from UNTAC to address the issues.

People in post-conflict countries expect UN peacekeepers to help them solve the problem, but when it turns out a number of peacekeepers are committing such crimes or abuse, it turns things upside down, from saviour to troublemaker.  

Is there much common ground between what happened in Cambodia and recent reports in other countries?

In the case of Haiti, peacekeepers exchanged food and medication for sex, and that is terrible. It’s a little bit different from the case of Cambodia. But I’m not sure if it’s worse. Based on my observations, it was more about prostitution [in Cambodia]. It’s not necessarily the same exploitation – you also can consent to being trafficked. But because of the promotion of prostitution, you think it is OK rather than hold back, and it is not a good lifestyle.

Could the causes be similar in the cases of sexual misconduct under UNTAC and the present?

During the UNTAC period, [Yasushi Akashi] thought it was about men’s needs – that men need sex. And it has been the same case in other countries, but then the problem falls onto women and girls, so in order to address that, we need to rethink whether it is the man’s [legitimate need] or is it abuse.

How could the experience in Cambodia be applied to current countries where peacekeepers operate?

In Cambodia, we were poor just after the war and the country was still fighting. We were in need, so we didn’t think about it as abuse or any kind of violation. That’s why for current issues right now, we need to reconceptualise what is abuse. Not only local people, but the peacekeepers – and their leaders – have to raise the lesson from Cambodia.

It’s often been suggested that the UN brought HIV/AIDS to Cambodia. Do you believe that to be true?

I tried to compare with other countries that didn’t have UNTAC, and those countries also contracted HIV/AIDS, but in Cambodia it was very limited until just after the arrival of UNTAC peacekeepers. That’s why it leads us to believe that the peacekeepers brought the disease to Cambodia.

But I’m still sceptical, whether HIV/AIDS was unreported prior to UNTAC or UNTAC brought it to Cambodia, but I would say the way people describe the evidence, UNTAC bringing disease to Cambodia is more convincing.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

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