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Distinguishing between exploitative and non-exploitative sex involving UN peacekeepers: the wrongs of “zero tolerance”

The links between the presence of peacekeepers and the sexual exploitation and abuse of women have been documented across peace support operations (PSOs). This expert analysis critically analyses the United Nations secretary general’s Bulletin on Special Measures for Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse, which was promulgated in 2003 to address the problem of sexual exploitation and abuse in the context of PSOs. The expert analysis is concerned with the broad definition of sexual exploitation provided by the bulletin, which includes most sexual relationships and prostitution.

It concludes that the bulletin’s definition of sexual exploitation is over inclusive in its “strong discouragement” of sexual relationships and prohibition of prostitution regardless of consent, age and fair remuneration. It argues that, as currently formulated, the bulletin undermines women’s agency and sexual autonomy, and blurs important distinctions between consensual sex and sexual offences. The bulletin thus relies on and perpetuates negative gender stereotypes and imperial hierarchies and, consequently, encourages stigma and discrimination. It casts women as victims and peacekeepers as sexual predators who cannot treat women as equals.