The UN section of the House of Commons International Development Committee Sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector

While in New York in June I met up socially with some of the members of the House of Commons International Development Committee who were visiting to look at the issue of sexual exploitation and abuse in multilateral organizations within the aid sector as part of their research for their full report relating to the issue int he aid sector as whole. I strongly recommend reading the whole report which is a sobering and far too often shocking read.

I am republishing the section of the report that deals with primarily the UN. I have written before about concerns i have had in the development NGOs over a number of issues. What this report does do is challenge us all in the international arena to actually practice the values that we say we believe in. This report came out two weeks ago and perhaps will nto receive the review it deserves because it came out as many people were going on holiday. I hope this blog expands the group that will read both this section and then go onto read the whole report.

Safeguarding at the multilateral level

Role of the UN in tackling SEA
146. We have paid particular attention to the activities of the UN with regards to SEA. Since the 2002 West Africa report, which documented allegations of SEA that implicated 9 peacekeeping battalions and 40 aid organisations including UNHCR, the UN has continued to be subject to allegations: the UN Secretary-General’s Special Measures reports have shown that there were 165 allegations of SEA in 2016 and 138 allegations of SEA in 2017.
147. At the same time, the Secretary-General, António Guterres, is seeking to make strides forward in tackling SEA, having launched a “new approach” in his 2017 report on ‘Special measures for protection from sexual exploitation and abuse’, shortly after he assumed office. He aims to make the UN “a global example of best practice and leadership to be followed by all” in how it protects the people it serves from SEA, and has presented a raft of measures in support of this. In the 2018 Special Measures report, the Secretary General gives a renewed commitment to ensuring that PSEA remains a priority.
Influence of the UK at the UN
148. We heard that the UK is well placed to steer the UN towards progress. The Rt Hon Clare Short, former Secretary of State for DFID said, “[t]he UK is a big player in the UN system. Because it is a good funder, DFID has a lot of influence”. The current Secretary of State agreed, pointing out that the UK’s influence was strongest when coordinating with other donors: “the biggest lever we have… is other donors and our money”. We note that the UK will take the presidency of the UN Security Council in August this year, providing further opportunity to influence progress on PSEA.
149. DFID told us about some of the measures they have already taken to push the UN towards concrete improvements. In his oral evidence to the Committee, Matthew Rycroft CBE, Permanent Secretary of DFID, said that the UK had been helping to ensure that peacekeepers had SEA training:
the UK has doubled its contribution to UN peacekeeping in the last couple of years and we make sure that every single one of the British peacekeepers who go to join UN missions has proper training on how to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse. We also offer training to other contingents from other countries, who perhaps have less of a tradition in this area than we ourselves do, and we are working with the United Nations itself to make sure that one part of that family of organisations is able to spread that best practice to another part.
He also said that the UK is in a position to “withhold funding from any parts of the United Nations that do not match our requirements, either in terms of their reform or of their results”.
We have made absolutely clear that those parts of the international organisations that wish to continue to receive UK government funding need to make sure that they not only have zero tolerance for sexual exploitation abuse but that they can prove they have that zero tolerance.
150. In written evidence to the Committee, DFID outlined further actions at the multilateral level, including:
Establishing a donor working group to work together on PSEA “across the development and humanitarian sectors”;
hosting a roundtable in New York on 15 March with senior UN interlocutors and other donors;
Writing to the Secretary-General jointly with other donors calling on him to set out an action plan for a joined-up approach;
Writing to all multilateral agencies that DFID core funds, asking for assurances on their safeguarding practices.
Beyond the UN, the Secretary of State has co-hosted a roundtable with representatives from ten international financial institutions, who signed a joint statement reaffirming their commitment to preventing SEA.
Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (PSEA)
151. Through written evidence, the Committee has heard about a number of recent UN agency joint initiatives designed to tackle SEA. UNHCR, UNFPA, UN Women, UNICEF and UNDP, have jointly developed mandatory training on Prevention of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse for all personnel. UNICEF and UNFPA are co-leading a joint Task Force on SEA Allegations involving Implementing Partners, which focuses on developing a “uniform protocol” across the UN system for how SEA allegations involving implementing partners are reported and addressed. When we met with representatives of UN agencies in New York, they were keen to emphasise this collaborative approach.
152. However, despite these examples of joined-up working, we also saw evidence of a lack of coordination, and an emphasis on processes and procedures, without much apparent focus on outcomes. We were told that across the UN system there are now 18 task forces and steering committees working on PSEA. We were given this figure as evidence of how seriously the UN is taking PSEA, but this struck us as an indicator of a failure to integrate efforts. We also heard that it is a challenge to connect the work of IASC PSEA Task Force, which includes external organisations and NGOs, with the work of the UN working group on sexual exploitation and abuse, chaired by the Office of the Special Coordinator, as well as the difficulty in connecting these both up with the UN’s wider work on gender-based violence.
153. Our impression of disconnect was validated by the Secretary of State, who talked about the “inconsistency between agencies” with regards to reporting. She said that “[u]ltimately, this is about… not duplicating things, cutting down on bureaucracy and having something that is effective and efficient”.
I don’t think there is any quick way of getting the UN to get where we want it to be on these issues and others, other than the hard graft of getting it there. Part of the success of that is going to be donor nations who pay the agencies to do their work, to require them to do it in a much more joined up and co-ordinated way.
DFID told us in written evidence that the UK is supporting a joined up response across the UN, and has sought assurances from the Secretary-General that the UN is working collaboratively and collectively to step up efforts to tackle sexual exploitation and abuse. The Deputy Secretary-General, Amina Mohammed, welcomed a strong voice from Member States in this regard, when we met with her in New York. She highlighted the leverage that Member States have over UN funds and programmes through their funding and position on executive boards.
154. With only a limited pot of resources for PSEA initiatives, it is imperative that the UN agencies pool their efforts to maximise their impact. We recognise that there are now a number of joint initiatives but the sheer number of task forces and working groups that have sprung up indicates that there is still duplication, or at least a lack of integration, of efforts to tackle SEA. If there is work being done to systematically measure, monitor and evaluate the outcomes of these various measures, and share learning, we have not seen evidence of it. Member States have a key role to play in promoting closer working between the various limbs of the UN system and, importantly, in ensuring that outcomes are being monitored, evaluated and shared. We welcome DFID’s push for more collaborative working and we encourage the UK to leverage the donor working group and the position that Member States hold on UN agency executive boards to ensure that this comes to fruition.
Lack of coherent and consistent investigation standards.
155. We have received evidence that has led us to question the standards of UN investigations into allegations of SEA. The Code Blue Campaign, using leaked documents on 14 UN fact-finding inquiries into complaints brought against peacekeepers serving in the UN mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA), concluded that the UN was operating with “haphazard, ad hoc, and prejudicial investigative procedures”, where the fact-finders had “scant understanding of crimes of sexual violence”.Caroline HuntMatthes, an independent investigator who has worked for eight UN organisations, said that during her service at the UN, she saw a need for better training for investigators.
156. We have also encountered examples of seemingly positive investigative practices. For example, UNHCR told us that they have investigators who are specially trained to handle sexual exploitation and abuse. All allegations of SEA are prioritised and assessed within 24 hours to determine the degree of urgency and whether assistance to the potential victim is required. The UN Department of Management told us that there are current efforts to increase the number of women investigators and investigators with experience in SEA more widely in the UN system.
157. However, it is difficult to assess the extent to which high standards are being upheld in investigations, due to the lack of information available about the process. Code Blue have described UN processes for responding to SEA allegations as “a complex web of opaque, bureaucratic internal procedures and ad hoc processes, operating outside the law and without any oversight”.In evidence to the Committee, Paula Donovan, the CoDirector of the Code Blue Campaign, told us that her chief concern was:
what happens between the time that someone comes forward and reports an allegation and the time that the United Nations declares that that allegation has been resolved in one way or another. That is all done behind closed doors.
158. Our meetings at the UN gave us an indication that there is a lack of coherence across UN agencies when it comes to SEA investigations. The UN Office of Internal Oversight Services (UN OIOS) was established in 1994 to assist the Secretary-General “in fulfilling his oversight responsibilities in respect of the resources and staff of the Organization through the provision of audit, investigation, inspection, and evaluation services”. The UN OIOS carries out investigations into SEA allegations relating to UN field missions and the UN Secretariat. We were told that alongside the work of the OIOS, all agencies, funds and programmes sitting outside the UN Secretariat also have their own investigation units. If the OIOS receives an allegation against personnel from one of these agencies, they refer the allegation to that agency to investigate. If a UN organisation which does not have its own investigative function receives an allegation of SEA, they outsource the investigation to the OIOS. A recent New York Times article on UN investigations into sexual abuse portrayed a messy, disjointed system, that is difficult for accusers to navigate. According to the article, the Secretary-General’s spokesman, Stéphane Dujarric:
acknowledged that across the United Nations there is no consistent procedure or standard of proof for investigating sexual harassment and assault cases. The organization’s 27 programs, funds and agencies largely independently, creating a patchwork of policies across a vast bureaucracy. Some investigators indicated that they relied on the legal definition of rape in the country where the act is committed—even in countries where the United Nations considers the law flawed.
159. The system also appears to engender a diffusion of responsibility with regards to follow-up, with no single body seeming to be in charge of driving investigations towards resolution. Once OIOS refers a case to another UN organisation, there is no formal process of feedback or follow-up. The same is true for when OIOS makes a criminal referral to a Member State, and, as outlined in Chapter 3, there is no process for communicating updates and outcomes back to the original complainant. In the context of this apparent lack of coordination, we heard from representatives of UN funds and programmes about the need to coordinate as closely as possible with regards to sanctions in order to ensure standardisation across the organisation.
160. We heard from the UN funds and programmes representatives why a decentralised system of investigations is important for ensuring that each organisation is able to respond quickly and appropriately to allegations, rather than referring all allegations to one centralised unit which could become cumbersome and slow. They also highlighted the advantages of being able to have tailored investigative practices for the specific nature of their organisation’s work. However, we also heard from a senior UN official that a “common investigative capacity across the whole UN system would be a huge step in the right direction”.
161. The Special Coordinator on improving the United Nations response to sexual exploitation and abuse, Jane Holl Lute, told us that her role was to work out “where common tools make common sense”. She recognised that there were inconsistencies in the UN’s approach to SEA allegations and has consequently developed a standardised reporting form, based on advice from top investigators across the UN system.
162. The UN’s approach to investigating SEA allegations lacks consistency and coherence. The system is not laid out clearly enough for us to judge where high standards are being met, and where they are deficient. Investigative functions seem to operate in siloes, and there is little evidence of best practice sharing. There is no single body taking an overall interest in the outcomes of investigations or driving them towards resolution, and the victims appear to be essentially forgotten. We heard that standardisation on sanctions is important, but the structure of the current system seems to completely undermine this. We appreciate that there may be advantages to decentralisation, but this does not preclude coordination and consistency.
163. We welcome the introduction of a standardised reporting form, and believe that this consistency should be evident in all aspects of UN investigations. 164. The UK should urge the UN Special Coordinator on SEA to create, in consultation with both the OIOS and the individual investigative functions of the UN agencies, funds and programmes, best practice standards for investigations, which all agencies responsible for conducting investigations must follow. These standards should reflect the importance of ensuring that investigations reach a timely conclusion as well as necessity of having investigators with specialist expertise in sexual exploitation and abuse. The Victims’ Rights Advocate should work with the Special Coordinator on SEA to ensure that these standards reflect a victim-centred approach to investigations. The UK should hold agencies to account for the adoption of these best practice standards, and should encourage other States in the donor working group to do the same.
165. Immunity of UN workers, especially civilian staff, has been heavily criticised in the evidence we have received. The Code Blue Campaign explained how immunity applies to different kinds of UN personnel:
The civilian personnel who carry out the UN’s work… have immunity, to protect their work from interference or retaliation from a hostile government. For UN personnel, how far immunity extends depends on their category of personnel and the nature of the actions or words that constitute the alleged offense. The highest-ranking UN officials have immunity akin to diplomatic immunity, but the vast majority of personnel have only functional immunity–which means they are only immune from any legal process for words and actions performed as part of their official duties. Military personnel deployed to work with UN peacekeeping missions do not have immunity from legal process; instead, by prior agreement, military personnel remain under the “exclusive jurisdiction” of their country of nationality–that is, a country which sends troops to the UN retains the right and duty to investigate and prosecute its own personnel.
166. UNA-UK explained that whilst peacekeepers can be prosecuted by their home country, they have immunity from prosecution by the host country. If their home country does not exercise extraterritorial jurisdiction, or if certain acts of sexual abuse are not recognised as a crime, then even the home country will not be able to prosecute.
167. The UN Secretary-General confirmed on 13 February 2018 that the UN will not seek immunity in cases of sexual abuse, which DFID welcomed as an important signal. Natalie Samarasinghe, on behalf of UNA-UK, said in oral evidence that this now needs to be implemented:
The Secretary-General has made that commitment. It is a recent commitment… we still need to see whether that is going to be put into practice, and there are cases now where you could argue that it should be. We need to wait to see whether that happens.
168. UNA-UK have also set out why, whether or not the Secretary-General follows through on this commitment, there may still be barriers to prosecution:
States of origin frequently don’t exercise extraterritorial jurisdiction over civilians. Meanwhile, host states, which are experiencing a significant enough crisis of governance to necessitate a peacekeeping mission, are frequently unable to prosecute effectively.
169. The barriers to prosecution appear evident when looking at the data available on the progress of SEA investigations. The UN lists SEA allegations against field mission personnel since 2015 on its website. Currently, most of these cases are listed as ‘pending’. But, even where cases of a serious nature are listed as ‘substantiated’, it appears there are a substantial number where no penal action has been taken.
170. Paula Donovan of the Code Blue Campaign told the Committee that there is less accountability for civilian than military personnel:
Where the jurisdiction of the troop-contributing countries is concerned, there is a path—whether or not it is followed is a matter of hot debate— but there is no path to justice for civilians who are accused of sexual misconduct of any kind in the United Nations. It is all shrouded in secrecy. While there is naming and shaming of the Governments that are providing troops, when you look at the UN’s published data it simply says, “Civilian”. You cannot find out where that civilian is from, whether it is a national of the UK, Sri Lanka or the Maldives. You have absolutely no idea where that person is from.
171. Typically, the issue of sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeepers has received more focus than civilian personnel but, according to DFID, this is starting to shift.Code Blue states that:
In all years since the UN has made data available, civilian personnel of the UN have committed more sexual exploitation and abuse per capita… Over 60% of allegations reported to the UN in 2017 were against civilians.
In a speech in September 2017, UN Secretary General acknowledged that “the majority of the cases of sexual exploitation and abuse are done by the civilian organizations of the United Nations, and not in peacekeeping operations”. Natalie Samarasinghe described SEA by civilian personnel as “the next big scandal waiting to happen”.
172. For Code Blue, the challenges in bringing civilian personnel to account are rooted in the fact that “the UN is not a neutral party”:
In any case involving one of its own personnel, the UN organization has its own interests to protect, such as mitigating reputational damage, assessing whether the case will have an impact on the organization’s programming or funding, and retaining and supporting employees who are key players in diplomatic or management strategies. These interests, among others, form the basis of a deep, intractable conflict of interest. In any other context, this conflict is plain. It is why the use of employer investigations and disciplinary processes is normally a supplement to criminal or civil justice, and employers are bound to respect the law and to defer to law enforcement and neutral court officials. Employers are ideally not the first and should never be the only point of contact for victims of crimes.
173. In order to overcome this “built-in bias” Code Blue have called upon Member States to establish both a Temporary Independent Oversight Panel and a Special Court Mechanism to ensure criminal accountability. When we put this to the Secretary of State, she cautioned against “replicating law enforcement” and said that this “would not gain traction”:
You are still left with the same problem that, even if you have an independent organisation, you still have to get the UN and its component parts to recognise it.
She promoted instead, “hard graft” by Member States to push the UN towards reform.305 Whilst in New York, we were also cautioned in several meetings that any oversight measure driven forward by Member States risks replicating the existing political dynamics within the UN that already hamper progress and reform.
174. Impunity for sexual exploitation and abuse is utterly unacceptable. The lack of accountability entirely undermines the notion of zero tolerance and undercuts efforts to strengthen reporting mechanisms, by reinforcing the notion that there is no value in bringing forward allegations. The UN, and its Member States, cannot underestimate the importance of ensuring that allegations of SEA reach a proper conclusion. We can see that there may be no buy-in amongst Member States for an independent accountability mechanism overseeing the UN investigation processes, and we also recognise that such mechanisms risk replicating the existing political dynamics within the UN. Member States, however, still have an important role to play regarding accountability.
175. It is imperative that all cases referred to Member states are thoroughly investigated and brought to trial where there is a case, and that the outcome of this judicial process is communicated back to the initial complainant. The UK must lead the way and use its influence within the donor working group to ensure that other Member States do the same.
176. We welcome the UN Secretary-General’s commitment to waive immunity in cases of SEA, and his recognition that this is a significant problem with civilian, as well as military, personnel.
177. The UK should ensure that the theoretical waiver of immunity also applies in practice, and should press the Secretary-General to deliver on his commitment in all cases where it applies.


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