New UN response to peacekeeper sex abuse focuses on victims, could punish states

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres is received at Mogadishu's Aden Adde International Airport with an honor guard mounted by U.N. peacekeepers. Photo by: Tobin Jones / U.N.

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres on Thursday rolled out a new, victims-centric approach to combatting the organization’s long-term battle with sexual abuse and exploitation by peacekeepers against the civilians they are tasked with protecting.

The strategy is detailed in a report from Guterres’ office and includes the creation of a new human rights expert for victims’ rights — a first-of-its-kind position at the assistant secretary-general level within the U.N. It also plans to route more money into a year-old victims trust fund, which now holds just $436,120.

It also promises penalties for offending members. If troop-contributing countries fail to take legal action against their nationals who face credible claims of abuse, the U.N. could withhold funding and re-direct the money to the victims fund, according to the report.

The plan also sets the bar higher for all incoming and onboard U.N. staff, who will now be asked to affirm their commitment to the U.N.’s standards on sex abuse and exploitation, and may face more stringent background checks.

In 2016, the U.N. fielded 65 allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse involving U.N. civilian staff, in addition to 80 allegations of sexual abuse by uniformed personnel. While almost all of these allegations were against U.N. peacekeeping and special political mission personnel, there were also charges against a few other U.N. agencies, including the U.N. Refugee Agency and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East.

About half of the investigations of this alleged abuse reported in 2016 — constituting mainly rape of a child, followed by transactional sex with an adult — remain open. Approximately 50 percent of these cases stem from the Central African Republic.

Some of these cases were reported in 2014 or 2015, noted Lisa Buttenheim, assistant secretary-general for Department of Field Support, during a U.N. press briefing Thursday afternoon.

Guterres acknowledged the protracted nature of these allegations and crimes in a video message.

“The vast majority of U.N. troops and personnel serve with pride, dignity and respect for the people they assist and protect, very often in dangerous and difficult conditions and at great personal sacrifice,” he said. “Yet our organization continues to grapple with the scourge of sexual exploitation and abuse, despite great efforts over many years to address it. We need a new approach.”

The U.N. also announced that it will now require the U.N. Department for Peacekeeping Operations, field support and the Department of Political Affairs to consider gender parity for all open positions, starting for mid-level positions. Parity will be required for all senior level positions. This falls in line with Guterres’ commitment made at the start his tenure to ensure equal numbers of women and men in leadership positions at the U.N. Greater numbers of women throughout the U.N., and in uniform, will “help efforts to prevent and respond to sexual exploitation and abuse,” the report states.

The widespread problem of sexual assault by U.N. peacekeeping missions has continually resurfaced, though has rarely resulted in systemic punitive action. U.N. peacekeepers and police face immunity in the countries where they serve and it is the job of their home countries to follow through on investigations. It is not uncommon for victims to not be updated on their own court cases, according to Nancee Bright from the office of the U.N. special representative on sexual violence in conflict.

The U.N. new victims rights expert will work closely with civil society and other partners to help close the gap on this issue and “be the voice of the victims,” Bright explained during the press briefing.

“We realized that we are dealing with very vulnerable environments, vulnerable people and weak judicial systems. It was essential we come up with new ideas,” she said.

In the late 1990s, a U.N. international peace force monitor in Bosnia revealed that U.N. police were helping traffic women. Allegations of abuse — including child sex exploitation — by peacekeepers in Liberia, Haiti, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and Mali, among other countries, followed in the 2000s, as documented by CodeBlue, a campaign by the international advocacy organization AIDS Free World.

Every U.N. employment offer letter and contract will now open with a statement on the organization’s values and “contain text that specifically highlights rules and regulations that pertain to personal conduct, especially regarding sexual exploitation and abuse,” according to the report. Staff will be asked to acknowledge, in writing, their agreement with these standards, both upon entry and also reassignment.

Individuals fired from one part of the U.N. system because of sexual abuse will not be hired in another section. And in a bid to strengthen and streamline data collection of abuse allegations, U.N. agencies and departments will begin using a standard template for reporting abuse. The report acknowledges that the number of allegations filed in any year are likely an underestimate of the problem.

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