UK not doing enough to support survivors of peacekeeper abuse, report says

Peacekeepers patrol a small town in North Kivu province, Congo. Photo by: Sylvain Liechti / U.N.

LONDON — The United Kingdom’s work to tackle sexual exploitation and abuse at the hands of international peacekeepers has not done enough to support victims and survivors, according to a report from the Independent Commission for Aid Impact.

The U.K. government has positioned itself as a leader in fighting sexual exploitation, abuse, and harassment in the humanitarian and development sectors, which has been a priority since the #AidToo scandals that surfaced in 2018 and continue to emerge now.

The United Nations recorded 80 allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse at peacekeeping and special political missions in 2019, mostly in the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, although experts believe many cases go unreported.

“Support for survivors has not been a strong feature of the UK government’s support to the UN’s work on SEA in international peacekeeping missions.”

— A report from the Independent Commission for Aid Impact

The U.K. spent £3.8 million on tackling SEA in international peacekeeping, according to the report, consisting of two main strands: supporting reform and initiatives in the U.N. and training international troops serving as peacekeepers through the British Peace Support Team, funded by the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund.

But while the 2017 U.N. strategy to combat SEA by the international organization’s personnel makes the “rights and dignity of victims” a priority, the U.K. has lagged behind this focus on victims, treating SEA primarily as a discipline and conduct issue, according to ICAI, which examined U.K. performance on the issue from 2014-2019.

It found “support for survivors has not been a strong feature of the UK government’s support to the UN’s work on SEA in international peacekeeping missions.”

The United Kingdom’s funding and diplomatic activity did help achieve tangible improvements with the U.N., such as the introduction of a system that tracks U.N. staff members accused of sexual offenses, according to ICAI.

Sexual abuse in aid sector still 'widespread'

Little progress has been made on safeguarding since a landmark summit almost two years ago, according to aid experts.

But while the measures enacted by the government to improve the behavior of peacekeeping troops were “promising,” there was a lack of evidence for their effectiveness, according to the report. It added that these efforts have made “limited progress” tackling SEA because of the need to be balanced with measures for victims and survivors.

“Given the persistence and urgency of the SEA challenge and the difficulties of improving discipline among UN peacekeeping troops, the UK approach does not appear to have a sufficient level of programming targeted at country-level support for and engagement with survivors,” the report said.

This was contrary to “clear evidence” of the need for a survivor-focused approach to tackle SEA. ICAI found only two programs that were engaged with survivors across the U.K. government’s SEA work with peacekeepers.

ICAI also highlighted the United Kingdom’s absence from an assistance fund for victims that was established by the U.N. in 2016.

The report was published as a follow-up to ICAI’s research on the United Kingdom’s Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative, which was released in January. A wider investigation into SEA and safeguarding across the development sector is expected next year.

About the author

  • William Worley

    William Worley is the U.K. Correspondent for Devex, covering DFID and British aid. Previously, he reported on international affairs, policy, and development. He also worked as a reporter for the U.K. national press, including the Times, Guardian, Independent, and i Paper. His reportage has included work on the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh, drought in Madagascar, the "migrant caravan" in Mexico, and Colombia’s peace process. He can be reached at william.worley@devex.com.