Allegations that Georgian peacekeepers raped teenage girls while serving in the Central African Republic should force Tbilisi, as well as the European Union, to rethink training methods aimed at reducing the risk of sexual abuse by soldiers on peacekeeping missions.
The UN announced January 28 that at least three girls between the ages of 14 and 16 told investigators that they had been raped in 2014 by Georgian peacekeepers stationed in the Central African Republic’s capital, Bangui. French soldiers also serving with the European Union Force, known as EUFOR, are alleged to have traded bottled water and cookies for sexual favors from a seven-year-old girl.
With the accusations already two years old, getting to the bottom of what actually happened could prove complicated. The Georgian contingent completed its peacekeeping mission last year, and an independent review of the Central African Republic case found that the UN had bungled its internal investigation.
Yet the claims add to mounting criticism that UN reforms to prevent sexual violence by peacekeepers are not working. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s annual report, released this month, stated that in 2015 there were 69 allegations of sexual abuse or exploitation made against peacekeepers during 10 different missions; this year, 25 allegations have surfaced since January, with several involving children, the Associated Press reported.
The UN has pledged reforms to eradicate proven cases of sexual violence. But turning words into deeds has not been easy. Success requires regional security organizations, like EUFOR, and participating non-member states, like Georgia, not only to cooperate with the UN, but to lead the way in implementing reforms.
Georgia itself has a vested interest in doing so.
While the allegations against its peacekeepers remain unproven, they come at a particularly sensitive diplomatic moment for Tbilisi as it prepares for the July 8-9 North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit in Warsaw. Peacekeeping missions like the one in the Central African Republic have become a hallmark of Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic integration strategy. And officials in Tbilisi hope the Warsaw gathering will help Georgia move closer to its goal of becoming an alliance member.
In responding to the UN allegations, Georgian officials have mostly emphasized the lack of proof against their troops, while stressing the Georgian military’s largely positive track record in past peacekeeping missions.
Georgia’s Ministry of Defense has emphasized that the perpetrators would be “brought to justice,” and that “it is unacceptable for the alleged actions of several individuals, in the event these are proven, to shame the image and prestige of the Georgian Armed Forces.”
Georgia’s defense minister, Tina Khidasheli, underlined on February 27 that “it is a matter of dignity to wash this stain off the Georgian Army.”
Two days after the allegations surfaced, an anonymous Georgian soldier accused refugee women of trying to blackmail peacekeepers stationed in Bangui. He alleged to the popular weekly Kviris Palitra that a refugee had threatened to say that Georgian peacekeepers had raped her, if they did not give her money.
The chief of the Georgian military’s general staff, Major General Vakhtang Kapanadze, has also weighed in, stating matter-of-factly: “I believe my soldiers when they say they are not guilty.”
Nonetheless, Georgian officials are addressing the UN complaints: six Georgian officers responsible for overseeing peacekeeping missions have been suspended, pending the results of a probe, while a special investigative unit has been established.
This is more than can be said about some other countries that have failed to respond to UN allegations of sexual abuse at all. From 2007-2014, the UN, according to its own data, received a disappointing response 45.8 percent of the time.
Reform rather than reputation should be the primary concern of Georgia’s Defense Ministry. The same holds true for the EU, which issued a press release the day the allegations were made public, but which has not followed up since then.
Additional measures the Georgian Defense Ministry could implement include: integrating more women and gender officers into peacekeeping forces working with refugees; keeping open channels of communication with refugees; improving the training of peacekeepers on dealing with refugees and on the cultural nuances of the countries in which they are deployed; working with the UN to establish onsite military courts; and providing enhanced support to victims.
The fact that French soldiers have also been accused on multiple occasions of sexual abuse confirms that this is not just a Georgian issue, or a UN issue, but an EU issue that requires system-wide reform.
Prior to its one-year deployment to the Central African Republic in 2014, the Georgian contingent received little training from EUFOR on working with refugees. Nevertheless, they were made responsible for a rapidly escalating crisis at the M’Poko Airport near Bangui, where as many as 30,000 refugees had gathered. According to a Georgian officer, only one person in the contingent spoke French, making it difficult to communicate with the people they were meant to protect.
EUFOR does supply an information card that defines sexual abuse and exploitation, and Georgian authorities provided a pre-deployment psychological briefing that included information on working with local populations. But more needs to be done.
Shortcomings in existing training mechanisms cannot be an excuse for misconduct, but they should encourage Georgia and the EU to consider broader changes for future peacekeeping missions, aiming to prevent sexual exploitation in the first place.
Ryan McCarrel is a PhD candidate in the School of Geography at University College Dublin. He writes extensively on international security and geopolitics. You can follow him on Twitter @ryanmccarrel.