UN moves to act on sexual abuse by staff and troops

Critics say UN not in position to investigate itself despite victims rights advocate role

United Nations secretary general Antonio Guterres renewed attempts to eradicate sexual abuse and exploitation within the organisation at last week's general assembly. The issue of sexual misconduct, which has been ongoing for 20 years, has tarnished the UN's reputation in many countries, particularly those where it oversees its 15 current peacekeeping operations.

More than 850 allegations against UN staff and peacekeeping troops, ranging from rape to transactional sex, have been logged by the UN in the last decade, according to figures from its Conduct and Discipline Unit.

Guterres spoke of his own meetings with victims of sexual abuse last week and formally announced the appointment of Australian Jane Connors, a widely respected and experienced human rights expert, to the new post of victims rights advocate.

“Over the years, I have been haunted by my many encounters with women and children scarred by sexual violence,” said Guterres. “Sexual exploitation and abuse has no place in our world. It is a global menace and it must end.”


Guterres is the first secretary general to highlight sexual abuse committed by civilian UN staff across its agencies, not just soldiers provided by member states for peacekeeping operations.

“We are not dealing with peacekeeping operations, we are dealing with a problem of the UN as a whole,” he said.

Complaints and concerns

Connors’s task will be to liaise with victims of sexual abuse across the UN system and develop support networks to ensure their complaints and concerns are heard. Several national-level advocates have already been appointed to assist victims during the investigation process to ensure they are kept informed and their rights are respected.

"No matter what the UN does, as long as this continues, this behaviour by a few . . . undermines the good work of the thousands of UN personnel who dedicate their lives across the system,' said Lynne Goldberg, senior political affairs officer in the office of the UN special co-ordinator on improving the UN response to sexual exploitation and abuse.

Along with a new focus on victims, and the establishment of a victims trust fund financed by troop-contributing countries, several measures are being introduced to eliminate sexual misconduct. These include the recruitment of more female peacekeepers, increased communication between UN agencies and their humanitarian partners, and a new incident-reporting system being trialled in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The UN first internally investigates claims of sexual abuse and exploitation against peacekeepers and staff. If they are found guilty, cases against peacekeepers are handed over to their home country. Staff are dismissed, or if the allegation is criminal, their case is referred to either the host country or their home country.

“Do I think the UN can investigate itself? Absolutely, I think it can,” said Goldberg, who dismissed critics’ calls for the UN to recuse itself when its own staff were accused.

Central African Republic

The publication of leaked documents earlier this month relating to allegations of sexual abuse in the Central African Republic cast new doubt on the UN's administrative investigations.

In 14 cases alleging sexual misconduct by peacekeepers from nine countries, mostly dating from last year and which included rape and gang rape, several alleged victims were not interviewed by UN officials or were questioned in hostile settings, the actions of the alleged perpetrators were played down, and the cases were not added to the UN’s online database of pending cases.

"We feel as though it is a terrible conflict of interest for an organisation to be accused of crimes and then to oversee and conduct investigations into those crimes,' said Paula Donovan, co-director of Aids-Free World and its Code Blue campaign, which exposed the failures in the Central African Republic.

The breach of protocol in the Central African Republic investigations, which were signed off by senior UN peacekeeping staff, shows the need for an independent special court system, particularly in countries where the UN is reluctant to hand its own staff over to local authorities, said Donovan.

However, member states have not been amenable to the idea of an alternative court system, a UN official told The Irish Times.

Unless the UN ends its blaming of individual actors and takes full responsibility for its staff, Donovan believes Guterres’s reform measures will remain “cosmetic” and make little difference to victims of sexual misconduct past and present.