Sexual Abuse in the United Nations

by Thomas Rose

The good news is that the number of allegations of sexual abuse by individuals working for the United Nations is down. The troubling news is that they exist at all.

A new report to the Secretary General lists the total number of sexual abuse and sexual exploitation allegations in 2014 at 79 compared to 96 the year before.  The allegations are spread out over half a dozen different agencies that deal with everything from refugees, to development, to food, to relief work among Palestinians, to peacekeeping operations.

All the allegations involve UN staff or people contracted by the UN and they are all disturbing, not only because they deal with sexual abuse but because they involve individuals entrusted to safeguard some of the world’s most vulnerable people.

By far the largest number of claims, 51, originates within nine peacekeeping operations, with a whopping 81% of those allegations emanating from missions in six African nations.  The mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo reports the largest number of abuses at 13, followed by South Sudan and Liberia at 12 apiece, Mali at 5, and Abyei and Cote d’Ivoire at 1 apiece.

It is tragic that having been forced to flee their homes because of internal strife or other humanitarian emergencies these individuals must now worry about whether their protector will turn out to be just another predator.

The alleged offences range from sexual assaults of a minor, to soliciting prostitutes, to trading favours for sex, to trafficking of persons for sexual exploitation, to rape.  In the report tabled last month but only released in March, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon states that new efforts to achieve the UN’s zero tolerance policy goals are being put in place, including enhanced monitoring and reporting efforts as well as initiatives to ensure ‘robust’ prosecution of suspects.

But for some NGOs, this isn’t good enough.  In an open letter to all UN members, Stephen Lewis Co-Director of AIDS-Free World accuses the UN of sitting on a report by an Expert Team highly critical of past and on-going measures to combat sexual abuse and exploitation.  The report was submitted to Ban two years ago.

Lewis says his group is releasing the report to illustrate why the need for immediate action is so critical.  The 2013 assessment of UN efforts claims, inter alia, that the UN does not know how serious the problem is, or refuses to admit it, because the official numbers mask “serious underreporting” of sexual exploitation and abuse.

Despite Ban’s assurances that the UN will eventually eliminate sexual abuse of the vulnerable by UN employees, the Expert Team report claims that Ban’s zero tolerance policy is fighting an ingrained culture of impunity ‘where those who break the rules are not punished’.

The battle to end sexual abuse by UN employees, especially peacekeepers is perhaps one of the most sensitive and damning issues facing such operations.  The need to take all steps necessary to end the abuse now is paramount not only for those abused, but for all the women and men at the UN who remain dedicated and passionate about working to make the world a better place.

Thomas Rose, LL.M, MSL, is a TSHEPO Fellow who lectures in justice and journalism courses at Wilfrid Laurier University.

The UN Report on sexual exploitation and abuse can be accessed at http://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/N1504176.pdf

The Expert Team’s Report can be accessed at http://www.aidsfreeworld.org/Newsroom/Press-Releases/2015/~/media/Files/Peacekeeping/2013%20Expert%20Team%20Report%20FINAL.pdf

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