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February 8, 2011 -- Vol.15, No.1

The Blue Helmets: Sexual Exploitation, Sex Trafficking and Organizational Culture in UN Peacekeeping Operations
by Peter Mameli

This article discusses sexual exploitation, sex trafficking and sexual abuse in United Nations peacekeeping operations. By considering the recent history of peacekeeping scandals, American experience with sexual harassment issues, and theories of organizational culture, the path to policy crisis regarding coercive sexual relations at missions will be examined. Suggestions for cultural change will be offered with special attention given to the leadership of the Secretary-General.



On July 21, 2007 it was reported that the United Nations (UN) Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) had confined its entire 734 member Moroccan peacekeeping contingent in Cote d'Ivoire to barracks amid allegations some had engaged in the sexual abuse of local underage girls (Reuters, 2007).  In 2008, peacekeepers were subjects of 80 formal investigations by the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS).  This continued a pattern of investigations stretching back to at least the mid-2000s (Lutz, Gutmann and Brown, 2009, 3-4). 

There has been a scattered trail of accusations about sexual exploitation and abuse, sometimes including sex trafficking, in UN missions ranging from Cambodia, to Bosnia to the Congo, since the 1990s.  As a result there has been a corresponding effort on the part of the UN to confront the issue since 2003.  The greatest change came in 2007 as structural adjustments were made in the UN by creating the Department of Field Support (DFS).  DFS complements DPKO and focuses on concerns of this nature. But reform efforts have been criticized for failures to fully understand the problem (Lutz, Gutmann and Brown, 2009), as well as an inability to exercise the necessary political will to deal with it (Allred, 2006).

This article examines UN peacekeeping efforts by identifying the players involved and the linked history of sexual exploitation, trafficking and abuse emerging from missions.  Analyzing the path to policy crisis by mapping the trajectory of American sexual harassment concerns against those the UN currently confronts serves to underscore the urgency of the problem.  Finally, organizational culture analysis is employed to unpack and explain the resulting conditions facing the UN.


The notion of "peacekeeping" has a long history, but in regards to the UN it stretches back to the post-World War II era when the organization began to find its footing in international affairs.  Historical development of the project has been traced by reviewing the missions, the participants, their goals, and eventual successes and failures.  Such a retrospective helps to establish the understanding that UN peacekeeping as an enterprise is still evolving (Bellamy, Williams and Griffin, 2004, 1-8 and 45-46).  Targeted studies of specific areas of peacekeeping, such as Civilian and Executive Policing, display the ongoing maturation process in specific contexts (see Dwan, 2002; and, Hansen, 2002).  Today UN peacekeepers are in more demand, and working in more missions, than ever before.

Until 1992, with the creation of DPKO, peacekeeping missions were carried out under regimens developed in somewhat piecemeal fashion. This hampered organizational learning, as it took place in a less than formalized fashion from one point in time to the next.  Since the 1990s began, however, there has been a more focused effort to establish increasingly consistent and accountable means to implement and carry out missions.   

Despite recognizing this need, problems have persisted with sexual exploitation, trafficking and abuse at mission sites.  To a certain extent the offenses are tied to the construction of the forces that serve as peacekeepers.  Peacekeepers are not selected by the UN, but are provided from troop contributing countries.  The forces are therefore made up of participants who may or may not work well together, or heed UN regulations with the same vigor. Peacekeepers are also ultimately subject to the laws and punishments of their home nations, and are often immune from UN sanction (Allred, 2006, 8-9).  In addition, sometimes a troop contributing country's commitment to peacekeeping is rooted in the desire to obtain the funding provided by the UN (Bellamy, Williams and Griffin, 2004, 52), and not in an overriding interest to serve the public good.  While it must be noted that peacekeeping problems are connected to the nature of the missions, where strife, hardship and danger can loosen professionalism, this is not an acceptable explanation for the emergence of sexual exploitation, trafficking and abuse.  It is against this backdrop that the history of these offences must be understood.

Scandals of this nature have dogged peacekeeping missions in many parts of the globe.  They surfaced quite forcefully in early 2000 during the aftermath of the war in Bosnia.  When peacekeepers entered the country it had already seen the creation of numerous brothels, and prostitution was flourishing. Rumors about peacekeeper involvement with these establishments began to swirl soon after.   Until this time, these serious and embarrassing situations did not generate enough heat to boil over into public policy discussion as a crisis.  They seem to have been handled more quietly within the realm of internal audits, evaluations or investigations conducted by OIOS as it sought to expose mismanagement and abuse while encouraging efficiencies (United Nations Economic and Social Council, 2003; United Nations General Assembly 2002, 2004 (A) (B), and 2005).  I am not suggesting that the UN condoned or ignored the conduct of those connected with such allegations, but it appears they did not forcefully address these concerns publicly until, over time, the problem mushroomed unacceptably.

It is difficult to know when the UN first became aware that the topic was serious enough to begin examining from an organizational, rather than mission specific, standpoint.  What is known is that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the non-governmental organization, Save the Children, initiated a high profile investigation into actions of the Bosnian mission's contingent of UN police that caught the attention of the world press.  The investigation probed the trafficking and enslavement of Eastern European women into local prostitution and produced one of the first official reports on the topic of peacekeeper involvement in such situations.  This scandal was also the subject of an oversight hearing by the United States House of Representatives. At that time the Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights of the Committee on International Relations of the House of Representatives took testimony from a former UN Human Rights Investigator in Bosnia (United States House of Representatives, 2002). 

The former investigator indicated there was ample reason to believe foreigners and peacekeepers were the primary clients of the Bosnian brothels, but that the UN as an organization was reticent to pursue the topic.  While short on facts about the mechanics of peacekeeper involvement on trafficking, as well as testimony from victims, the former investigator's comments provided fodder to the overall belief that the UN mission suffered grievously from exploitation of women and girls in the region.  Many more stories and press articles began to surface trying to connect the dots in Bosnia as this scandal broke (see Human Rights Watch, 2002; Robson, 2002; and, Crossette, 2003, for examples). 

Another investigation carried out by OIOS on sexual abuse and exploitation in West Africa examined refugee abuse in the countries of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone by aid workers.  Here too, sexual exploitation was indeed found, but not verified as widespread (United Nations General Assembly, 2002).  However, damage to the reputation of UN peacekeeping was building.

In a front-page 2004 New York Times story, a spotlight was turned on the problems of peacekeeping operations at the UN regarding the Congo peacekeeping mission (Lacey, 2004).  Subsequently, OIOS established a "pattern of sexual exploitation by peacekeepers" in a 2005 report to the General Assembly (United Nations General Assembly, 2005).

To suggest that the UN, or its leadership, was inactive on the matter during this period would be misleading. Beginning with a non-binding "Secretary-General's Bulletin" in 2003, a zero-tolerance policy on such matters was advocated.  In 2005 the UN commissioned a report on improving peacekeeping operations from Jordan's Prince Zeid al-Hussein.  Many of this report's recommendations were pursued in the following years.  Secretary-General Kofi Annan's 2005 report entitled, In Larger Freedom: Towards Development Security and Human Rights for All, highlighted the change in focus that the UN began to take on the matter. This report represented something of a watershed moment for the organization, as its leader placed peacekeeper abuses firmly on the institution's agenda for action.  However, this level of recognition had been a long time coming. 

Combined with the Zeid al-Hussein report, and the ongoing effort to institute structural changes by splitting the original responsibilities of DPKO with DFS, some movement forward had been obtained.  In particular, the emergence of the Conduct and Discipline unit within DFS has been a significant stride forward.  But as the history of investigations shows the danger continues to build.

The tide of events should not have been unexpected by students of public policy analysis. The particular policy wave that the UN has struggled against regarding sexual exploitation, trafficking and abuse in peacekeeping operations finds an interesting parallel in the history of sexual harassment policy development in the United States (Paul, 1994).  While only kindred issues, and not identical, a review of policy emergence in this area can offer a warning for the future to the UN. 


Paul (1994) provides an image of waves battering a shoreline, and then successfully breaching water barriers, as a metaphor to explain how sexual harassment became a "front-burner" issue in the United States.  She carefully detailed the rising tide of the 1960s and 1970s when concepts of "hostile environments" and "sexual harassment" gained credibility in the American legal system and psyche.  Both were defined by the misuse of power between the sexes in a working environment.  In her analysis of how the issue became a crisis, she listed the scandals and high profile cases that served to catapult the topic to prominence.  These situations provided identifiable faces to attach to the problem (reporters, senators, judges, lawyers were all a part of the make-up of sexual harassment improprieties).  They also served as successive occurrences that would not allow the issue to die in the public mind.  There were small waves leading to a catalytic wave, followed by waves of aftermath washing over the policy environment.

Paul saw small waves as the court cases of the 1960s and 1970s.  These solidified the issue under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Larger waves would emerge with the 1990 Lisa Olson case that charged she was subject to sexual harassment in the New England Patriots football team locker room when she was a reporter with the Boston Herald.  Then the first huge wave hit in 1991, when Anita Hill charged Judge Clarence Thomas with sexual harassment as he sought to be appointed to the United States Supreme Court.  In Paul's eyes the Hill/Thomas event was the catalyst for bringing the issue forward nationally.  However, it was not the last of its kind.  In seemingly rapid succession Americans heard about the United States Navy's Tailhook scandal in 1992, followed by varying senators who were charged with sexual harassment (Adams, Inouye and most notably Packwood fell into this category).  Each incident represented a type of wave hitting the national shoreline.  Finally (and too late for Paul's writing on the topic), a potential tsunami appeared with the Monica Lewinsky/President Clinton scandal that took place during President Clinton's final term in office.  The nature of the relationship between the parties was indeed different than the others discussed above.  But the case itself was tinged, it could be argued, with the overtones of "sexual harassment" due to the power imbalances between the participants, and foreshowed just how significant the problem could become. The onslaught of high profile incidents, combined with an ongoing concern about the issue from the public, brought home the issue as a policy crisis for the American people. 

Clearly there is a pattern in the American experience of how sexual harassment emerged as a policy crisis that can be superimposed on the UN's struggle to deal with sexual exploitation, trafficking and abuse in its peacekeeping operations.  The waves on the shoreline of DPKO, and now DFS as well, have been hitting with continued urgency.  It is hoped that the negative lessons regarding the relentless build to crisis are not lessons lost on the UN.  So far, they seem not to be.  But the UN remains unsuccessful in completely safeguarding its shores from ongoing assault – risking a shattering public disaster that could take the organization decades to recover from.


The concept of organizational culture is particularly relevant to this analysis.  Organizational culture is the way organizations shape the collective mind of their personnel to face the challenges of both internal and external environments.  Culture provides order and reference points for all within an organization to anchor their actions.  Rainey refers to the concept by noting that it captures "shared meaning" within an organization or group (Rainey, 2003, 308). However, this is only a starting point as the topic runs much deeper. 

There are different levels to examine when trying to understand organizational culture. Daft indicates that organizational culture is best understood by using an iceberg as an analogy (Daft, 2004, 362).  The part of the iceberg above the waterline consists of all the things you can see (symbols, behavior, dress, physical settings), or can hear (stories, language, passed on wisdom).   The massive part of the iceberg below the surface houses the core values, beliefs, assumptions, attitudes and feelings about the organization.  Daft's illustration simplifies the ideas of Schein, who offered three levels of culture: 1) Artifacts, 2) Beliefs and Values, and 3) Basic Assumptions (Schein, 1990).  Both views further our understanding of the topic considerably.  Khademian's use of Ott's matrix deepens the discussion by linking specific levels to specific components that define organizational culture (Khademian, 2002, 90; Ott, 1989, 62). Complicating matters, we must be careful to remember that organizational culture can consist of differing, and even competing, subcultures. Sometimes subcultures work in harmony with an overriding organizational culture, and sometimes they do not.  In the case of peacekeeping operations we need to concern ourselves with organizational culture as it flows across levels, and within subcultures.  If significant improvements to the problem of sexual exploitation, trafficking and abuse are to be made, they must be rooted in a comprehensive approach based on these understandings. 

The overall culture of the UN regarding peacekeeping can first be observed by examining the role and conduct of the Secretary-General.   This individual sets the tone for the remainder of the organization. It is here that the basic assumptions of UN organizational culture need to be displayed, and its beliefs and values sharpened. The Secretary-General must communicate this vision to the subcultures of departments within the UN Secretariat. When concerned with peacekeeping activities, the primary subcultures to focus on are those of DPKO/DFS.  Beyond DPKO/DFS, however, subcultures of importance also exist on the ground of any given peacekeeping mission.  DPKO/DFS's ability to control operations from a distance is no doubt difficult in such circumstances, and cultural cohesion can drift from its point of origin if not carefully monitored.  Since personnel for these missions are drawn from troop contributing countries, organizational cultures for the national bodies themselves have to be taken into account also.  This laddering of subcultures within the UN missions is one reason that it is so difficult to implement a particular UN peacekeeping culture consistently and successfully.  Such complexities need to be carefully examined when trying to manage "out" sexual exploitation, trafficking and abuse from peacekeeping operations.

Within the overall organization of the UN, and within the departments and missions noted above, it is necessary to pay attention to means of unifying cultures.  Differing cultures create significant disconnects in UN peacekeeping operations that keep uniform social norms from setting easily across these units.  As peacekeeping operations on the ground stretch immediate UN organizational control, and the organizational cultures of individual nations and their participant peacekeepers can collide with the views of the UN or DPKO/DFS, harmonization is critical.  To address such problems, Schein's three levels of culture (artifacts of culture, beliefs and values of culture, and basic assumptions of culture) can offer insight.  Representing a hierarchy of importance in regard to the securing of a particular organizational culture within an overall organization and/or its departments and units, Schein's levels allow for points of entry for developing solutions.  The fundamental building block is establishing a strong central organizational culture that ensures subcultures hear a singular message across levels.  But how does one build a strong central organizational culture that radiates outward in this complex environment? The answer lies beyond the necessary efforts at creating structure, rules and education that the UN has already undertaken.  A more complete answer lies with the Office of Secretary-General, and the individual occupying it. 

If artifacts represent the tip of the cultural iceberg that we see, they are indeed important but arguably not the cement that is required to solidify the culture desired.  Going deeper into building values and beliefs is required to further harden peacekeeping culture. This can be best achieved by adjusting the basic assumptions of culture, or by resetting the overriding fundamental organizational worldview that culture springs from.  As such, it is this fundamental level of culture that needs to be forcefully communicated to the organization by the Secretary-General. If there is any hope at all of permanently changing the culture of peacekeeping operations where sexual exploitation, trafficking and abuse are concerned, the Secretary-General needs to be seen as both an artifact and underlying value of that change. Tying these levels together as a basic assumption of the organization is the goal for improving results.

It can be said that this began happening under former Secretary-General Annan. As the onslaught of scandal and embarrassment in peacekeeping operations continued to crash on the shores of the UN, Secretary-General Annan sought to offer cultural direction to the organization. Building off audit and investigative recommendations, the UN began to move toward a proactive, rather than reactive, stance.  It had also tried reshaping the values and beliefs of its organizational culture regarding the treatment of women and girls under peacekeeping operations.

Gains from these efforts could be seen within subcultures.  As noted earlier, the Secretary General's "Special Measures for Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse" bulletin of 2003 stated what types of discipline could result from an offense (United States Department of State, 2006).  Following on the release of the Bulletin, events in the Democratic Republic of Congo led to peacekeepers from Pakistan, Uruguay, Morocco, Tunisia, South Africa, Nepal and France being investigated for actions ranging from pedophilia to rape and prostitution (New York Times, 2004).  In all there were 150 allegations of sexual exploitation leveled at this one peacekeeping operation (United States Department of State, 2006).  There was even the possibility of one Member State (Morocco) prosecuting its nationals for partaking in such activities.  In addition, the Under-Secretary General over DPKO issued a policy statement on mainstreaming gender perspectives into peacekeeping operations, and DPKO developed a training module on the topic for on site peacekeepers when they arrive at a new mission (United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations, 2005).  There had been additional efforts to provide this module proactively, to donor countries, so that it can be administered to troops before they leave (United States Department of State, 2006).  The creation of DFS focused further attention on the problem in 2007, and recommendations relating to balancing gendered perspectives have been considered by the UN through DFS consultants (Lutz, Gutmann and Brown, 2009).  Yet, as the news from Cote d'Ivoire alone has shown, building a cohesive culture takes consistent and ongoing hard work to implement at all levels of the organization and its missions.

Recent efforts of the UN remain encouraging, but nobody should expect that additional structure, rules and education alone will finish the job.  For there to be a lasting change, the Secretary-General has to keep up public pressure and not wait for the continuing crash of waves on the beach to push this agenda forward.  The tsunami is likely awaiting the UN on sexual exploitation, trafficking and abuse in peacekeeping operations if it decides to let events dictate its pace.  The better posture is to confront the rising tide in gesture and symbol, rather than to watch it grow.  What is necessary now is for Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to continue moving the organization in the right direction by reinforcing the existing social architecture that addresses peacekeeping transgressions.  Demonstration of such commitment and political will on the part of the Secretary-General is necessary to send a powerful message throughout the organization.  This will build cultural cohesiveness across this decentralized operation.  Structural, legal and educational changes are indeed necessary, but they are not sufficient to ensure success.  The weight of the office of Secretary-General must be placed at the forefront of the movement.  To that end, removing immunity from transgressors in the field when necessary, holding troop contributing countries to trying those accused at home, and publicly confronting issues of gender, racism and classism among UN staff and DPKO/DFS mission participants are all essential steps in achieving this (see Lutz, Gutmann and Brown, 2009; and, Allred 2006, for detailed discussion on these paths forward).


UN peacekeeping operations have been beset with scandal regarding sexual exploitation, trafficking and abuse for a number of years.  The trajectory of the scandals threatens to become a massive international policy crisis for the organization to deal with.  This is not altogether shocking, as it has been documented that the American experience with the issue of sexual harassment traveled a similar path towards national policy crisis in the United States.

Preventing serious damage to the organization, and its missions on the ground, requires attention to adjusting organizational culture in fundamental ways.  To achieve this the Secretary-General has to publicly lead the way, so that subcultures can follow in his footsteps. Complicating matters immeasurably is the fact that more than subcultures within the UN need to be addressed.  In addition, troop contributing country impressions about peacekeeping need to be shaped as well.  This is a tall order to say the least.  However, if peacekeeping operations are to be viewed as helpful rather than threatening to host countries and their populations, this change must occur.  If the work cannot make significant headway on the ground in the near future, then I suggest something more than a modest symbolic gesture should be considered by the organization as a whole to push this cultural framework forward.  Perhaps the time has come for the Security Council to nominate, and the General Assembly to appoint, a woman Secretary-General for the United Nations willing to vividly take on such issues.  While not pretending to transform substance and values through appearance alone, such an act would clearly link Schein's levels of artifacts, beliefs and values, and basic assumptions in the eyes of the world.  This would provide a golden opportunity to create lasting cultural change at UN missions in the future.


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[Note] This research was supported by a grant from the City University of New York, PSC-CUNY Research Award Program.

Copyright © 2011, Peter Mameli