It’s no secret that the world of international aid has a lingering sexual abuse problem. While individual organizations bear responsibility for their own failures, the United Nations — a behemoth with a vast and complex system of internal rules and regulations — easily dominates the discussion. It sets the standards that other organizations follow.
Sadly, the U.N. is not up to the job.
Humanitarian group Medair said it could not protect the woman from further harassment, so it sent her home.
The international organization’s internal complaint-management system is particularly impenetrable thanks to the existence of U.N. immunity, which affords a near-total lack of accountability from external laws and oversight. The vast majority of U.N. personnel have “functional immunity,” which means they are immune from legal process but only for “words and deeds” committed in service of their U.N. functions.
The U.N., however, often misapplies immunity, preventing any meaningful oversight of alleged transgressions. It sets a dangerously low bar for transparency and accountability for the aid sector as a whole.
The organization for which I work, AIDS-Free World, and its Code Blue Campaign, along with other organizations, seek to end impunity for sexual abuse by U.N. personnel. We regularly write to top U.N. officials, seeking clarification on their policies and practices. A simple question is often answered with endless citations of special bulletins, General Assembly resolutions, investigation manuals, and the like, leaving us with more gray areas to parse than when we began.
The effect of the U.N. morass is that the powerful and well connected are shielded against the claims of the less powerful.
Take the case of women’s rights activist Prashanti Tiwari, who was working as a contractor in a position funded by the United Nations Population Fund in India. Tiwari went to the police in the state of Bihar, alleging that she was sexually harassed and assaulted by the head of UNFPA India, Diego Palacios. UNFPA asserted that Palacios was immune from legal process, even though the U.N. has repeatedly affirmed that sexual crimes can never be protected by the cloak of U.N. immunity.
In the face of the United Nations’ illegitimate assertions, the police investigation stalled. In that window of time, UNFPA conducted an internal investigation that exonerated Palacios, largely due to the lack of an eyewitness.
When the Indian police investigation finally got off the ground, the police found enough evidence to proceed with filing criminal charges, casting UNFPA’s motives — not to mention the quality of its investigators and their findings — into serious doubt. UNFPA has still not responded to this development.
But even when U.N. immunity is not explicitly at issue, the U.N. system has a way of denying justice to victims.
Sima Newell was an employee of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS when she accused her supervisor, Jan Beagle, of bullying and other nonsexual harassment. Despite an ongoing investigation, Beagle was promoted to lead a U.N. task force on sexual harassment — one of the organization’s top advisory roles on this issue — once more calling into question whether the U.N. takes the issue of harassment seriously.
While the United Nations’ internal investigation ended up exonerating Beagle, Newell challenged that finding on appeal at an independent administrative tribunal, which ruled in her favor and against UNAIDS.
And for accusers like Tiwari who are not U.N. employees? They don’t even have the right to appeal to a U.N. tribunal. There is no way for them to challenge an investigation that dismisses their claims.
In such a system, where justice is extraordinary rather than normal, where victims must display superhuman strength and resolve, where misconduct that is exposed goes unpunished, it is not surprising that impunity persists. The United Nations’ attempts at reform do little. What is needed is independent accountability:
• Remove the conflict of interest. Investigators are U.N. personnel. Final disciplinary decisions are made by colleagues of the accused. As long as investigations are not truly independent and decisions are taken without oversight, there will continue to be power imbalances and abuse of authority.
In the case of sexual offenses committed by U.N. peacekeepers, the Code Blue Campaign has proposed an independent “special court mechanism” that would properly investigate crimes, try cases, and sentence offenders while safeguarding the rights of both accusers and the accused.
• Provide access to information. Victims must be able to access information about their own cases. All U.N. entities should institute a system through which victims can hold the organization accountable to release that information.
• Listen to victims. To create effective change, the perspectives of victims must take on a greater role in discussions of accountability and reform. Code Blue has proposed a series of activities that would give voice to all victims, particularly those who are often unheard. Victims are the real experts; current policies silence their voices.
• Listen to civil society. Civil society engagement with the U.N. today is weak, consisting of ritual meetings where civil society is asked to rubber-stamp generic plans for reforms. Rarely does the U.N. listen rather than speak.
The moment has surely come for U.N. member states to recognize that all of the secrecy, the lack of accountability, and the simple daily exercise of contempt for civil society views are bringing the U.N. into disrepute.
Time is running out to turn things around.