A press briefing on the release of U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres’ report on measures for protection from sexual exploitation and abuse. Photo by: Rick Bajornas / U.N.

LONDON — The United Nations said the number of allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse against its staff fell in 2017, dropping from 165 cases in 2016 to 138 last year.

The new numbers were published in U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres’ special measures report, released last week. They show that while the number of allegations against personnel deployed on U.N. peacekeeping and special political missions fell from 104 to 62 during that time, allegations against other U.N. entities and their implementing partners nearly doubled from 42 to 75. The figures also cover allegations against non-U.N. forces authorized by a Security Council mandate, which accounted for one case in 2017.

The multilateral institution has heralded the overall drop in reported incidents as an indication that its zero-tolerance stance on sexual abuse and exploitation is working.

“The report underscores the secretary-general’s consistent message that no one serving under the U.N. flag should be associated with sexual exploitation and abuse,” said special coordinator on improving U.N. response to sexual exploitation and abuse, Jane Holl Lute, during a press briefing, adding that cracking down on alleged abuses remains one of the secretary-general’s “key priorities.”

However, civil society groups have questioned the interpretation of the figures, saying that abuse is still widely underreported and they would expect to see higher incident rates if reforms were working — a point previously referred to by the U.N. following the spike in allegations in 2016, which it said was “partly explained” by strengthened reporting measures.

“The U.N. can’t have it both ways. What’s certain is that underreporting is rampant and many cases are dismissed before ever being recorded,” said Kaila Mintz, coordinator of the Code Blue Campaign, run by NGO AIDSFree World, which is advocating to end impunity for sexual exploitation and abuse committed by UN personnel. Mintz also called attention to that fact that allegations against non-peacekeeping staff rose hugely during the reporting period.

“The U.N. isn’t focusing on the increase in allegations against the U.N.’s own civilian personnel — a striking 62 percent of allegations across the system,” she said. “These are cases where the U.N. polices itself, where the investigations and any follow-up are shrouded in secrecy. And we believe that just a small fraction of victims see any purpose in reporting.”

The new figures come as the U.N. faces a slew of harassment and abuse reports against high-level staff and is coming under increasing pressure to demonstrate that commitments to ending sexual abuse, harassment, and exploitation by staff are being implemented.  

Last month, UNICEF’s Deputy Executive Director Justin Forsyth resigned because of allegations of inappropriate conduct toward female staff while he was head of Save the Children. The deputy head of UNAIDS, Luiz Loures, then announced he would not seek another term, although a spokesperson said this was unrelated to a previous “unsubstantiated” sexual harassment allegation. Claims against other high-level figures have also emerged.

Last week the U.N. announced it was launching a confidential, 24-hour helpline for staff to report harassment or abuse, as Devex reported. In November, Guterres said the U.N. needed to do more to tackle such issues and launched a strategy to prevent and respond to sexual exploitation and abuse, which included appointing a Victims’ Rights Advocate for the first time. The secretary-general has also recently clarified the U.N.’s position that staffers accused of sexual assault do not have legal impunity, something campaigners say has allowed many perpetrators to go unpunished for years.

The report concludes with a promise to create better “alignment between data collection and reporting methods system-wide” through the development of a “common standard and method … so that allegations are reported in the same way and the data are easily consolidated and accessible.” It also promises greater transparency across the U.N. system through improved “tools for disseminating information on and tracking credible allegations.” All this data will then be consolidated in one system-wide website.

Advocates say this could help address the current lack of data around sexual abuse and exploitation within the U.N. Currently, sexual misconduct allegations only against peacekeeping personnel are recorded and published online on the Conduct and Discipline in UN Field Missions website. Incidents against non-peacekeeping staff are published in the annual Special Measures reports, but there is no dedicated public system to track such allegations.

Furthermore, campaigners such as Code Blue say existing data is vague and there is a lack of transparency around where the numbers come from, making it difficult to find further details about the alleged crimes, victims, and the status of their cases. Part of the problem, they say, especially outside of peacekeeping, is that each U.N. agency tracks its own allegations and then reports it to the Secretariat, raising questions about the consistency and accuracy of the reports.

“In the absence of an external, independent mechanism to systematically and transparently receive and report cases, we are reliant on the U.N. to self-report allegations — and these reports vary widely in accuracy and detail,” said Paula Donovan, co-director of the Code Blue Campaign. The campaign recently made public 14 case files from the U.N. mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA), some of which have never been published in the U.N.’s databases.

“The U.N. allows many cases to quietly slip into obscurity long before they are referred to law enforcement for criminal accountability,” Donovan added.  

The lack of official, aggregate figures on sexual exploitation and abuse cases across the U.N. has also allowed unofficial and sometimes eyebrow-raising estimates to spread, including controversially from Andrew MacLeod, a former chief of operations of the U.N.'s Emergency Coordination Centre. His claim that U.N. staff have committed at least 60,000 abuses in the past decade based on ballpark calculations was picked up by the media — but it also attracted criticism, and was described as “fictitious” by Code Blue.

He defended his methodology, saying that until the U.N. offers comprehensive data of its own, then his estimate is “reasonable.”

“When you sit down and go through them one by one, they are reasonable assumptions given there’s no data,” MacLeod said, adding that “you can’t discredit the number until you come up with a better, more accurate number that shows our number to be wildly low or high.”

About the author

  • Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.