UK report offers no systemic solutions to UN sex abuse crisis

August 1, 2018 HUMAN RIGHTS , News , OPINION/NEWS , UK

Reuters photo



Code Blue



The following is a statement by AIDS-Free World’s Code Blue Campaign in response to the UK Parliament’s International Development Committee (IDC) Report on Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in the Aid Sector, released earlier this week:



The report of the International Development Committee (IDC) of the UK Parliament acknowledges and outlines the dysfunction in the United Nations’ processes for handling allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse by its own personnel. Citing the Code Blue Campaign’s analysis of 14 fact-finding cases leaked to us by a UN source, the report notes the UN’s “lack of coherent and consistent investigation standards.” The report quotes Co-Director Paula Donovan’s testimony before the IDC on the UN’s unwillingness to disclose “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.”


But the IDC report is a profound disappointment for advocates of comprehensive overhaul. The report is eager to recommend quick fix, cosmetic improvements to the UN’s structurally flawed processes rather than pushing for broad re-evaluation of systemic failures. The IDC appears content to allow the UN to continue to treat sexual exploitation and abuse as an internal matter, with no recommendations to address the persistent conflict of interest that has enabled countless predators to escape criminal accountability.


The report quotes from Paula Donovan’s statement that there is no criminal accountability “for civilians who are accused of sexual misconduct of any kind in the United Nations,” citing Code Blue’s statement about how the UN’s “deep, intractable conflict of interest” prevents such personnel from being held to account. Yet the IDC glosses over the only proposals for independent, transparent accountability measures—a Temporary Independent Oversight Panel and a Special Court Mechanism, both proposed by our Code Blue Campaign—which would address the UN’s conflicted role. Although the report acknowledges these proposals and draws heavily on Code Blue’s submission to understand and explain the role of UN immunity in blocking justice mechanisms, the report veers sharply off-course by deferring to an erroneous assertion of Penny Mordaunt, the UK Secretary of State for International Development, who said that Code Blue’s proposals would be “replicating law enforcement.” Secretary Mordaunt fundamentally misunderstands the problem facing the UK and other Member States who bear responsibility for the UN.


Despite its conclusions, the IDC report explains the problems with the UN system well. The IDC notes that “it is difficult to assess” the extent of misconduct or cover-up in the handling of allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse because “[t]he system is not laid out clearly enough for us to judge where high standards are being met, and where they are deficient.” Our proposed Oversight Panel is a means to rectify exactly that: It is an oversight panel through which Member States would be able to monitor and evaluate, in real-time, the UN’s response to individual allegations of sexual offenses, and make rapid, expert recommendations on UN policies and procedures. It is not an ultimate solution, but a necessary step in that direction. The Oversight Panel is urgently needed at a moment when Member States are operating in a total vacuum of information, relying time and again on self-reporting by the UN.


The IDC report is often startlingly credulous of the UN. At one point it welcomes “the UN Secretary-General’s commitment to waive immunity in cases of SEA.” But has Mr. Guterres waived immunity in even one instance? The Code Blue Campaign is dealing with a number of shocking cases—some of which have been disclosed publicly, some of which have not—and we have seen no evidence that the UN is prepared to issue waivers of immunity. Member State oversight of its international civil service is critically needed at this stage, and the IDC admits that governments have no other tools at their disposal.


In addition to real-time external oversight to evaluate the status quo and identify problems before they reach crisis proportions, the Code Blue Campaign has proposed the establishment of a Special Court Mechanism. Operating at country level, the Mechanism would create a start-to-finish solution, offering a path to justice by creating neutral teams of professionals to receive complaints, investigate and, if necessary, prosecute UN civilian, non-military personnel accused of sexual crimes. These are the individuals who, under current UN organizational procedures, are subject to little more than an internal UN administrative investigation that might result—at most—in the loss of employment.


The IDC report approvingly cites extraterritorial jurisdiction as a viable path to justice. But the idea is obviously unworkable. It is hard to imagine the UK, and all 192 other UN Member States, dispatching investigators to a distant corner of the earth after one of its citizens, a UN employee, is accused of a crime. Upon receipt of a complaint, the “home country” of the accused UN employee would need to send investigators to the crime site—to dangerous conflict zones in the Central African Republic, Congo, and South Sudan, or highly developed areas of Europe and North America—places where the UN operates in languages, dialects, and cultures that may be entirely unfamiliar to police from the accused’s home country. Police would nevertheless conduct their own investigations, after seeking waivers of UN immunity for their accused citizens, on an individual, case-by-case basis. The accused would then face trial in his home country, far from the claimant seeking justice and any witnesses, and the home country’s authorities must somehow relay timely and useful information back to victims.


Extraterritorial jurisdiction is a fantastical, costly, and logistically nightmarish exercise that would do little to help real victims of sexual crimes committed by those who are currently able to abuse the international regimes of immunity with near-total impunity.


The Special Court Mechanism does not replicate law enforcement. It establishes a law enforcement process where none exists.


The report goes on to say 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.” But when it comes to criminal sexual abuse, accountability is not simply an option to be exercised when and if the UN has the political will. Accountability is a necessity. Respect for human rights and the rule of law is not a choice for UN Member States. It is an obligation. And as history has demonstrated in far more complex and politically fraught dilemmas than the UN’s internal sex-abuse crisis, “buy-in” can be achieved when a particular Member State—such as the UK, which the report describes as having a profound influence among fellow Member States—dedicates itself to pressing for substantive change. We are disappointed that the IDC report points to the “political dynamics within the UN” as a hindrance to just action. Why, then, hold the hearings in the first place?


The IDC report does not address victims’ needs for accountable, impartial, accessible justice mechanisms external to the very institutions that have harbored the “open secret” of impunity. Instead, it falls back on old, disproven ideas about victim empowerment. The report praises the UN’s Victims’ Rights Advocate as an important “first step.” We have written extensively of the empty promises and recycled ideas of the UN’s self-described “victim-centered approach.” The UN, we note, has failed to outline exactly what rights victims are entitled to.


Another ineffective victim-focused approach is the report’s recommendation for an international aid ombudsman, who would act “as a right of appeal for victims and their advocates if they feel the internal processes do not provide them with redress.” The remedy to this worsening crisis is not a post-facto appeals process, which represents more of the same. What is needed is external, real-time, independent monitoring and oversight. What is required is genuine criminal accountability.


We applaud the IDC for recognizing that any discussion of sexual exploitation and abuse in the charity or humanitarian aid sector must necessarily be tied to discussion of sexual exploitation and abuse by UN personnel: The UN continues to be the standard-setter in impunity and lack of accountability. We regret that the IDC report does not follow the carefully traced contours of the larger problem to reach a viable, innovative solution. The report asks its audience to place trust in broken systems that represent the unsustainable status quo.


We are certain, however, that the report is not the end of the debate. We will continue to fight for true accountability.







AIDS-Free World is an international advocacy organization devoted to exposing and addressing injustice, abuse, and inequality. Its Code Blue Campaign aims to end impunity for sexual exploitation and abuse by UN peacekeeping personnel.

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