Several of the UN’s most senior officials have pledged to redouble efforts to stamp out sexual abuse and exploitation within the organisation at this week’s general assembly in an attempt to eradicate a scourge that has shadowed its humanitarian work for decades.
The UN has been criticised for failing to properly handle hundreds of allegations made against its civilian staff and peacekeepers across the world, ranging from fathering children with women under their protection to transactional sex and child abuse.
Scandals have caused immense damage to its reputation and operations, particularly in Haiti, the Central African Republic and the other 13 countries where it runs peacekeeping missions. Secretary General Antonio Guterres last year called the issue a “global menace” and a top priority for his tenure as UN chief.
“The abuse not only undermines our values as humanitarians but he erodes the hard-earned trust the communities, the countries, our partners and donors place in us each and every day,” Executive Director of UNICEF Henrietta Fore told a meeting of UN agencies, NGOs and member states in New York City this week.
Fore called for a new change of culture throughout the UN, which employs 95,000 civilians and 90,000 police and soldiers, so victims feel able to come forward and report misconduct and perpetrators are sufficiently punished.
“We want fear and trust to trade places. We want perpetrators to feel fear and we want survivors to feel trust,” she said.
The UN’s mechanism for internal investigations became the subject of close scrutiny last year when leaked documents revealed it had botched 14 cases alleging sexual misconduct in the Central African Republic. The allegations dated mostly from 2016 and included rape and gang rape. Interviews were mishandled, the actions of the accused downplayed, and the cases were not added to the UN’s online database.
Public distrust of the UN is widespread in the conflict-gripped state and victims are often unwilling to report rapes and killings by peacekeepers for fear of retribution.
While on duty, UN peacekeeping soldiers remain under the legal jurisdiction of their home country. The UN can repatriate peacekeepers and ban them from further missions, but the troop contributing countries must determine any punishment if the sexual misconduct is criminal.
More than 340 allegations have been made against peacekeepers since 2010, though senior UN figures have said the true number of cases may be well above those reported.
Of these, a UN investigation found 99 claims substantiated, leading to 90 repatriations. Some 37 soldiers were jailed in their home countries, 16 were dismissed, and others fined or demoted.
Chief of the Public Affairs Section at the UN’s Departments of Peacekeeping and Field Support Nick Birnback told Al Jazeera the UN makes “robust” efforts to follow up with member states and record any punishments.
“There is no mission where [ending sexual abuse and exploitation] is not the highest priority,” he said.
The rules regarding civilian staff are murkier as the UN is often reluctant to hand over its staff to authorities in countries where it deems police and judicial systems to be dysfunctional or corrupt.
A UN official told Al Jazeera that in cases where a case of sexual abuse or exploitation by civilian employee is substantiated, they are dismissed and their home country is notified of the misconduct. It is not clear though, in cases where a criminal sexual offence has been committed, how many states can claim legal jurisdiction over their citizens while abroad on UN missions, or how they would conduct such an investigation.
Guterres has urged member states to adopt an international convention to resolve this ambiguity.
Only 37 of the 181 allegations made against civilian staff across 32 UN field missions since 2010 were found to be substantiated, with 26 leading to termination or dismissal. UN records show two of these cases leading to criminal action, one ending in dismissal and another in demotion.
A clearance system prevents staff with substantiated allegations against them being rehired within the UN, but offenders are not named publicly and the UN does not notify other organisations in the humanitarian sector to prevent their employment elsewhere.
Guterres appointed Australian legal and human rights expert Jane Connors to the new position of Victims’ Rights Advocate (VRA) in September last year to bring a sharp focus on the rights and needs of the victim rather than simply punishing the perpetrator.
Connors has spoken with victims in five UN mission countries across three continents, continued to build a trust fund for survivors, and established four regional VRA positions in Haiti, South Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“What comes from the top is very important but it has to go right, right down and there has to be continual effort to make people understand that this is unacceptable conduct,” she told Al Jazeera.
The needs of victims are diverse and must not be generalised, said Connors. Women who gave birth to children fathered by UN peacekeepers in Haiti told her they want secure healthcare and education for their children, while other victims in the Central African Republic want job and training opportunities.
“They want to go forwards with their lives,” she said. “They wish to have their perpetrator held accountable but they are not sitting there on their hands waiting.”
Critics have questioned the UN’s ability to conduct investigations into its own staff, drawing comparisons to decades of sexual abuse covered-up by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, but Connors believes the required independence can be achieved within the organisation.
“I think you can be [independent] if you have the checks and balances,” she said.
But some aid officials outside the UN are less optimistic about its promises of institutional reform from within.
“The UN is doing the same thing over and over again and finding news ways to dress it up as positive, forward movement,” said Paula Donovan, Co-Director of AIDS-Free World and its Code Blue campaign to end sexual abuse in UN missions.
Code Blue has called for a fully-independent special court system with the power to investigate and prosecute UN officials and peacekeepers in any jurisdiction.
Donovan said member states are shirking their responsibilities and are reluctant to make the structural reforms within the UN required to tackle the problem.
She also hit out at the “mystification” surrounding the legal immunity granted to UN staff.
Its officials across the world are given functional immunity, which protects them from local authorities when acting or speaking in line with their official duties.
Guterres has stressed that immunity offers no protection in cases of sexual abuse and exploitation, but Donovan claims this message has not taken root within the organisation, and that many victims are unaware they can pursue justice entirely outside the UN system.
“The UN has made it so complicated and so mysterious that its own staff, including even some senior officials, the population at large, the media, everyone is confused and thinks that somehow UN immunity means that only the UN can investigate and take action when crimes are committed by their own personnel,” she said.
“It’s not fair. It can’t happen that [UN staff] are the only people who can get away with sex crimes.”