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The UN isn’t doing enough to tackle its sexual abuse epidemic. Former staff agree

Three former UN staff and a former special advisor to the Secretary General explain how the UN downplays the issue, and perpetrators rarely face punishment due to a negligent process.  

James Walker
1 October 2018
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UN humanitarian air service ( UNHAS) in the Central African Republic, 2013. Ton Koene/Press Association. All rights reserved.

It is important to remember that the UN has been struggling for decades with its own sexual abuse epidemic. Sexual violence during times of war and conflict – “as destructive as any bomb or bullet” as Ban Ki Moon, former security general of the UN put it in 2014 – is nothing new. For it to come from UN peacekeepers and UN-employed civilian staff, people that have sworn to protect those in conflict, is an added crime. The difference between those in the #metoo movement and the victims of UN staff, however, is that the latter don’t have the same platform, voice or access to justice. UN staff and peacekeepers are sexually abusing women and children and consistently getting away with it.

A report from the UN Conduct and Discipline Unit website alleges that, since 2010 there have been 612 allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation against UN civilian staff and peacekeepers during missions with 875 ‘identified’ victims, with crimes ranging from transactionary sex to child rape. 173 of these allegations have been found to be substantiated and only 42 have seen jail time. “Is this good enough? No it is not” says Andrew Macleod, who worked as a senior advisor for the UN in disaster zones from 2003-2009.

Interestingly, all of those who have seen jail time are UN peacekeepers rather than UN civilian staff. The difference here is that UN peacekeepers are soldiers from troop contributing countries under UN command, whilst UN civilian staff are directly employed by the UN. Due to this, they undergo a different investigative procedure. Whilst peacekeepers get referred to their country of origin for investigation and prosecution, UN civilian staff go through an internal investigation by the UN. As staff, they have a form of diplomatic immunity under the ‘Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the UN.

Basically, UN staff that have been accused of sexual abuse have to be investigated by both the Conduct and Discipline Unit (CDU) as well as the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) to ascertain whether they have breached staff rules before the Secretary General can waive the immunity and open up the possibility for criminal prosecution. The problem? These internal investigations can take months or years, making subsequent investigations nigh-on impossible. Macleod adds “because the OIOS is such an appalling gatherer of evidence, none of that evidence would stand up in front of a (British) court.” Peter Gallo, who worked for the OIOS as an investigator agrees, adding that “the UN CDU’s are also a large part of the problem.”

Alfredo Forti, a special advisor to Secretary General Antonio Guterres until 2017 and a member of his special task force on sexual abuse told me, “I totally agree that certain administrative bodies of the UN, like the CDU or OIOS, do sometimes, through their bureaucratic processing of cases, constitute an obstacle to justice.” So, essentially, UN civilian staff are getting away with sexual abuse without punishment, or at least jail-time because the UN are institutionally failing to hold them to account.

So what does happen to those who are found to be guilty? The most popular ‘punishment’ according to UN data is a “dismissal ”. This, however isn’t always final, says Forti, explaining that “there have been certain cases in which a UN employee has been charged and is expelled and then, 2 years later, you see them in a different agency of the UN.” So, essentially, UN staff found guilty of sexual abuse, perhaps even child rape, aren’t even fired from their jobs in some cases. 

We first have to consider that this abuse isn’t new and that “it’s been well known by the highest reaches of the UN for a long time” according to Macleod. It was the report in 2005 by Prince Zeid Ra'ad Zeid Al-Hussein that first brought the sexual violence epidemic that was engulfing the UN to wider attention. But it is important not to forget the victims that came before that, when the possibility for justice was inexistent for the many who didn’t or couldn’t come forward.

Even the data being published by the UN nowadays seem to point towards it still potentially being much worse than the official figures suggest. UN data stipulates that UN civilian staff are committing less of this abuse with 37 found guilty compared to 137 peacekeepers since 2010. However, during his time at the OIOS, Gallo found that “the gross number of complaints received were equal between civilian staff and peacekeepers.” He added, “the difference is that South Sudan had around 25,000 uniformed peacekeepers and only 1500 civilian personnel.” Macleod agrees, saying, “most of the sexual abuse I’ve seen within the UN has been perpetrated by civilian staff, not peacekeepers.” Forti adds that “the paradox is that there are statistically more cases involving civilian staff.” In other words, this data doesn’t seem to add up.

“The largest harbourer of paedophiles”

Of the 286 victims reported in 2016, 140 were children. This 50% share is no coincidence, argues Macleod, who explains that because of the very little risk or punishment involved, “the UN has a higher than normal vulnerability to being targeted by predatory paedophiles.” Whilst Macleod used to think that the UN was “the second largest harbourer of paedophiles behind the catholic church”, he now thinks they’re potentially bigger. Due to this, “they should have a higher duty than normal to put in place prevention, detection and prosecution.”

Macleod focuses on child sexual exploitation and abuse not only because “it’s unambiguously wrong”, but because there are already extraterritorial laws in place to tackle it, “the sex tourism laws in the US, UK, Australia or wherever make it unlawful to have sex with a child under the age of 16 anywhere in the world.” Macleod argues that the fact these laws are already in place means that UN internal investigations can be seen to be meddling or even undermining national sovereignty by interfering instead of relaying the case directly to the country of origin of the offender.

“A culture of fear”

If one is to explain or understand the reason behind this lack of action, the “culture of fear” within the UN goes a long way to explain the cover up, according to Gallo. By this, he means that people keep their mouths shut since “the UN blames the whistle-blowers” in an effort to save face. An example of this is Anders Kompass who was hounded and discredited for ‘whistleblowing’ by advising the French government about child sex abuse by 14 French peacekeepers in the Central African Republic in 2014. Kompass’s case was subsequently ruled unlawful by the United Nations Dispute Tribunal. His secretary at the time, Miranda Brown, “passed this information to the press because she was disgusted and horrified.” Gallo goes on to explain that “Miranda has never worked since” and “is the living example of what happens if you report misconduct.”

“If you talk you’re fired” adds Celhia de Lavarene, who used to work for the UN in human trafficking, adding that there is a ‘culture of silence” as well as a “culture of fear” in the UN and “the people with power don’t pay”. Now a journalist for L’OBS and Mediapart in France covering the UN, Celhia explains that this can happen outside the UN as well; “I wrote two books about the UN in which I denounced all this and my name was blacklisted.”

What can be done?

It’s true that the solution to this problem isn’t easy. There are very few extraterritorial laws in place for this abuse and the places where these acts are being committed aren’t the easiest places to work as an investigator. However, Macleod reiterates that the UN isn’t doing enough, that “there are a lot more things that can be done if you take this seriously.”

 “We must create a joint protocol for joint investigations,” Macleod proposes before adding that “it seems simple, but it’s actually quite hard to implement.” On the peacekeeping side, Macleod would also like to see the UN take more initiative in punishing member states whose nationals primarily commit these crimes; “if you really want to hold member states to account, rather than suspending the payment of the soldier being accused, suspend the payments for the whole contingent.”

He adds, however, that not only is the UN guilty of this wilful blindness, but also NGO’s and charities. “This area of work has a perception of goodness around it, not unlike the Catholic church.” What we have to do, in order to combat this is “crack that perception of goodness”, asserts Macleod.

Both Gallo and Macleod expressed hope at the thought of what they call the “Weinstein Effect”, referring to the increase in people coming forward with their sexual abuse stories. Macleod hopes that it “will scare senior people in the UN” because he believes that these cases “start in a court of law and end in a court of public opinion.”

The victims of UN sexual abuse don’t have the same voice or possibility for justice. But how about #themtoo?

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