Despite the UN's 'zero tolerance policy,' sexual exploitation continues in South Sudan

Members of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan in Wau, South Sudan. Photo by: Nektarios Markogiannis / UNMISS / CC BY-NC-ND

JUBA, South Sudan — The United Nations says it has a “zero tolerance, no excuses and no second chances approach to sexual exploitation and abuse” after allegations surfaced last month of a Ghanaian peacekeeping unit in South Sudan having “transactional sex” with local women living in a protection of civilian site.

In February, the 46-member peacekeeping police unit was recalled from the town of Wau to the capital of Juba. South Sudan’s U.N. chief David Shearer called it a clear breach of the U.N.’s code of conduct, which prohibits sexual relationships with vulnerable people. A full investigation is underway by the Office of Internal Oversight Services, an independent agency that reports directly to the U.N. General Assembly.

“This is going to be an interesting insight into whether or not the [U.N.] secretary-general is serious about sexual abuse,” Peter Gallo, an international lawyer and former OIOS investigator, told Devex.

The U.N. wants OIOS to investigate rather than pass the inquiry to another body because there is a much better chance of them finding no wrongdoing, which will allow the U.N. to close the case, Gallo said.

Accountability in the aid sector: Humanitarians can no longer be above the law

Campaigners are calling for changes in the way the humanitarian sector is policed after the recent Oxfam scandal shed light on legal loopholes which have allowed sexual abuse and exploitation committed by United Nations and NGO staff to go largely unreported and unpunished for decades.

Recent allegations of exploitation have rocked the international aid community. Oxfam Deputy Chief Executive Penny Lawrence resigned in February amidst accusations of the mishandling of a prostitution scandal in Haiti, and in recent years the U.N. has faced several cases of sexual abuse by peacekeepers in developing countries. South Sudan’s peacekeeping mission was previously under scrutiny when peacekeepers failed to respond to cries for help from humanitarians in Juba’s Terrain Hotel, where South Sudanese soldiers gang raped five foreigners and killed a local journalist in July 2016. The event led to the dismissal of Lt. General Johnson Mogoa Kimani Ondieki, commander of the peacekeeping force at the time of the attack.

The U.N. Mission in South Sudan’s decisive action and transparency in recalling the Ghanaian unit in this case provided a good example of positive changes, according to a security analyst in South Sudan who wished to remain anonymous. The withdrawal of the police unit shouldn’t have a detrimental effect on the situation on the ground, he said.

For now, the U.N. is treating the allegations against the Ghanaian peacekeeping unit as an isolated case, stating that there are no indications that the behavior of the unit is more widespread within the mission, which employs 17,000 peacekeepers including 13,000 soldiers and 1,500 police across the country.

However, Devex spoke with several sex workers in Juba who said that many of their paying clients live on U.N. bases.

“They’ll usually pay for a hotel, but if they can’t come out of the base they’ll sometimes sign you in,” said Irene, a sex worker who wished to be identified only by her given name to protect her identity. Most of her U.N. clients are from West Africa, but she also has sex with white men, she said, and visits them in their apartments around the city.

Aid workers say the U.N. needs to set an example and commit to ending the recurrence of these stories to ensure that vulnerable people aren’t being taken advantage of.

“Aid agencies are also responsible for participating and perpetrating this exploitation, but the U.N. should be setting the gold standard for behavior and conduct,” said a women’s activist and aid worker based in South Sudan who wished to remain anonymous.

Since the Oxfam revelations, some organizations are taking further steps to safeguard staff and beneficiaries against exploitation.

“We owe it first and foremost to the people we have let down,” said Ranjan Poudyal, South Sudan’s country director. “They deserve justice.”

Oxfam has conducted an all-staff safeguarding training to help employees understand what is acceptable and what is unacceptable behavior when working for the aid group, Poudyal said.  Additionally, all staff have signed Oxfam’s code of conduct and are aware of how they can safely and securely alert them via a confidential whistleblowing hotline when they experience or witness sexual harassment or other misconduct.

In the meantime, South Sudan’s government is calling for an independent or joint investigation into the incident with the Ghanaian peacekeepers.

In a statement released last week, the South Sudan Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned the U.N. mission for not “living up to its objectives and mandate” and for betraying the trust of its people.

The country’s civil society organizations say the act “challenges UNMISS’ credibility and also creates an atmosphere of mistrust,” Edmund Yakani, executive director of the Community Empowerment for Progress Organisation, a South Sudanese advocacy group, told Devex.

A spokesperson for the U.N. mission said they haven’t received a written request from South Sudan’s government for involvement, and will rely on OIOS for the results of its investigation: “It is important to understand that the allegation against the police officers is not a criminal one but is specifically about a breach of the U.N. and UNMISS Code of Conduct,” the spokesperson said.

However, sex work is illegal in South Sudan, and “no investigation carried out by the U.N. will ever be considered credible … OIOS is not equipped or qualified to conduct a criminal investigation under the legal system in South Sudan,” Gallo said.

Gallo would like to see a “completely independent body” conduct the investigation, adding that going through the U.N. system results in a “ridiculous and quite unnecessary delay” of up to 12 months of investigation, which minimizes the chances of the activity resulting in a successful prosecution.

“By that time, they hope that everyone will have forgotten about it,” he said.

Update March 12, 2018: This article has been updated to clarify that Penny Lawrence was formerly the deputy chief executive of Oxfam.

About the author

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    Sam Mednick

    Sam is a freelance journalist based in South Sudan. Over the past 12 years she’s reported on humanitarian, human interest and conflict stories from around the world. Sam’s work has taken her to the Middle East, Africa, Asia, South America and Europe, writing for VICE, the Associated Press, Devex, Barcelona Metropolitan and iPolitics among others. Sam also produces and hosts the Happy Melly Podcast, interviewing authors, speakers and thought leaders about what it takes to live productive and fulfilling lives.