Exclusive: UN tackles sexual abuse but scale of challenge clear

  1. UN wants to end culture of impunity among peacekeepers
  2. Sex scandals undermine UN peace efforts around the world
  3. Guterres trying to change the entire culture of the UN

The United Nations is on a mission to stamp out sexual abuse and exploitation by its peacekeepers, aid workers and everyone else in the organization to prevent them harming the people they are supposed to help. Getting all member states to agree to a new code to prevent that abuse is easier said than done.

According to documents seen by WikiTribune, the UN is about a fifth of the way through a project Secretary-General António Guterres launched in February last year to get 193 member states to transform the UN’s approach to sexual violence and misbehavior after decades of scandals. Sex-trafficking, rape, child sex, and prostitution (Al Jazeera) in some of the most troubled countries in the world have dogged peacekeeping missions and aid projects – tarnishing the reputation of the blue helmets and the UN as a whole.

“I fully recognize that no magic wand exists to end the problem of sexual exploitation and abuse. Nevertheless, I believe that we can dramatically improve how the United Nations addresses this problem,” Guterres said when he launched the scheme which at its most fundamental, he said, was about gender inequality in the world at large not just in his organization.

The UN’s project – and the problems – are greater in scope than incidents at British charity Oxfam, which have focused attention on the conduct of those sent to deliver aid. The charity is accused of covering up allegations employees paid for sex and exploited local women in Haiti after a 2010 earthquake. Oxfam denies a cover-up but has apologized for its handling of the scandal (Associated Press). Separately, the deputy head of UNICEF (the United Nations Children’s Fund) resigned this week over allegations about his conduct in an earlier role at Save the Children.

‘It’s about being realistic. Many of these soldiers are boys’ – UN official

The challenges to reforming attitudes at the UN are significant in diplomatic and political terms. First, Guterres must get on board UN  programs and agencies that often compete with one another for resources and exposure.

“Most of these are initiatives that take time to implement. They require extensive coordination efforts and changes in procedures in place. Some of the new mechanisms we are setting up need to be tested before they are adopted system-wide,” said Stéphane Dujarric, a spokesman for the secretary general.

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Guterres must also get the member states to agree on new practices to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse. In the case of peacekeepers, countries paid by the UN provide troops yet those soldiers remain under the command of their own military and subject to the laws of their own country. While the UN may demand respect for women and locals, the soldiers’ military code may be less explicit.

“It is about being realistic. Many of these soldiers are boys. It’s about the best endeavours we can undertake when faced with the challenging situations we find ourselves in…,” said one UN official aware of the discussions led by Guterres and his personal commitment to addressing the issue.

Other UN measures include DNA testing of uniformed personnel to beef up accountability and strengthen paternity tests. It is also developing technology to allow victims to appear on video in courts martial for soldiers charged with sexual misconduct.

Ending impunity

Dujarric said victims’ rights are at the forefront of the campaign to secure accountability and end impunity. “To make sure that the voices of victims are heard, we have appointed victims’ rights advocates both at headquarters and in the field… On the ground, we are strengthening complaint reception mechanisms to enable victims to come forward,” said Dujarric, who listed additional measures such as strengthening a whistleblowers policy to protect witnesses from retaliation.

Sexual misconduct extends beyond peacekeeping troops, as Guterres recognized at a high-level meeting in September 2017: “Sexual exploitation and abuse is not a problem of peacekeeping, it is a problem of the entire United Nations.” 

Dujarric said progress was being made to end the “scourge” of sexual violence and exploitation. As of February 22, 87 countries had signed up to the voluntary agreement proposed by the secretary general.

The documents obtained by WikiTribune show that 13 of the top 20 troop contributing countries to the UN have signed the compact. “The response rate of Member States to communications from the Secretariat to follow up on reports of SEA (sexual exploitation and abuse) by their personnel was 63 percent in 2017 versus 42 percent in 2012 and we follow up regularly.”

Apart from Italy and China, the 20 largest contributors of staff to UN peacekeeping operations are developing countries. Historically, emerging nations have often found it highly cost effective to have troops on missions paid by the UN. Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Nepal are among those to have signed the agreement on preventing sexual abuse and exploitation. Egypt, China, South Africa and Cameroon for example, have yet to sign up to the Guterres protocols covering their troops.

How big is the problem?

According to the February 2017 report of the secretary general, “over 95,000 civilians and 100,000 uniformed military and police professionals serve the United Nations around the world.”

In 2016, 145 allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse involving 311 victims – predominantly women and girls – were brought against uniformed and civilian UN personnel (UN). But the report said: “We feel certain that not all cases are reported.” On February 13, a former high-level UN employee was quoted in the British tabloid newspaper The Sun as alleging UN aid workers could have carried out 60,000 rapes in the past decade. The paper suggested there was a global cover up of misconduct.

Sexual exploitation scandals by peacekeeping troops or troops operating under the UN umbrella have come under increased scrutiny since the 1990s (Al Jazeera). Most takes place in poor countries with highly vulnerable populations.

Here’s some of the more recent scandals:

  • Investigators find UN peacekeepers are involved in sex trafficking in Bosnia and Kosovo in the early 1990s.
  • In 2004, the Department of Peacekeeping Operations received 105 allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse (UN report). Most accusations related to sex with minors where persons where paid “on average $1 -$3 per encounter”, with food, or with jobs.
  • Similar instances of abuse by UN peacekeepers, or troops under a UN mandate, have occured in Sierra Leone, Eritrea, Somalia, Liberia, Haiti, and Guinea (Al Jazeera).
  • In late 2014, former UN worker Anders Kompass leaked a report to French authorities that contained accusations of sexual exploitation and abuse of minors
  • (Al Jazeera). In his report, Kompass accused 16, mostly French, soldiers sent by the UN Security Council to restore peace in the Central African Republic of sexually abusing 13 minors, including boys between the ages of nine and 13.
  • In April 2017, The Associated Press published an investigation that claimed that 134 Sri Lankan United Nations peacekeepers operated a child sex ring in Haiti for three years with impunity. The same investigation also uncovered nearly 2,000 allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation against UN peacekeepers and personnel around the world.

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Transforming UN sexual abuse culture

Guterres has made clear that tackling sexual violence and exploitation was one of his priorities. In his remarks to the General Assembly on taking the oath of office on December 12, 2016, he said: “The United Nations system has not yet done enough to prevent and respond to the appalling crimes of sexual violence and exploitation committed under the UN flag against those we are supposed to protect. I will work closely with Member States on structural, legal and operational measures to make the zero-tolerance policy for which Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has fought so hard a reality.”


  • February 8, 2016: Former Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appoints Jane Holl Lute as Special Coordinator on improving the UN’s response to sexual exploitation and abuse (UN). Prior to this, Lute served as CEO of independent, not-for-profit Center for Internet Security and as Special Adviser to the Secretary-General for Relocation of Camp Hurriya Residents Outside of Iraq.
  • February 28, 2017: the report of the secretary general is published and presented to the General Assembly. It lays out a host of new measures aimed at taking a “system-wide approach to preventing and responding to sexual exploitation and abuse.”
  • August 2, 2017: Guterres sends Voluntary Compact to 193 Member States to agree on and coordinate action against sexual abuse.
  • August 23, 2017: Guterres appoints Jane Connors as Victims Rights Advocate. Before taking on the role Connors was International Advocacy Director, Law and Policy for Amnesty International.
  • September 18, 2017: Guterres addresses a high-level meeting and says that sexual abuse and exploitation is a UN-wide problem.
  • September 29, 2017: Guterres announces that 72 countries have signed up to the voluntary compact. Another 19 indicate their intention to do so in the near future.

What the document says

The internal UN document shows the progress of 52 initiatives under Guterres’ plan “to improve the organization’s system-wide approach to preventing and responding to sexual exploitation and abuse”, first detailed in a February 2017 report. The draft document, dated December 22, 2017, shows that at least 15 of the 52 initiatives have been completed.

A further 12 are listed as “ongoing”. These include a proposal for the Security Council to adopt a “Special Protocol on Preventing sexual exploitation and abuse as part of the mandate governing mission deployments”. Another to “Develop capability to aggregate and analyse system-wide data associated with sexual exploitation and abuse – subject to funding” was labelled as “in progress”.

The list of proposals hints at  some of the organizational difficulties the UN will have in completing the project: such as to “Instruct sexual exploitation and abuse training to be mandatory, prior to deployment, for all categories of personnel, uniformed and civilian, at all levels”. That’s been done at the United Nations Development Programme but was still waiting for approval at the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the Population Fund, and the Relief and Works Agency as of December 22, 2017.

Another initiative to bring in external and UN legal experts aimed at improving “the efficiency of investigations, improve evidence collection mechanism [sic] in order to strengthen the prosecution” still needed confirmation from the Office of Internal Oversight Services. Consolidating the UN’s investigative capacities for sexual exploitation and abuse is a key part of Guterres’ strategy that “may require a fundamental structural change” according to the February 2017 report.

More detail from the report


  • “Establish a Circle of Leadership, consisting of global leaders willing to make a visible commitment to end impunity for sexual exploitation and abuse.” – As of October 27, 2017, 58 world leaders had signed up to this proposal.
  • “Launch a review of the relationship between sexual harassment in the United Nations workplace and sexual exploitation and abuse in United Nations operations in the field.”
  • “Appoint a system-wide Victims’ Rights Advocate” – Jane Connors
  • “Request the inclusion of an annexure to all Memoranda of Understanding with Troop Contributing Countries, to provide specific instructions regarding Member States’ obligations on the prevention and investigation of sexual exploitation and abuse.” – Voluntary Compact

Ongoing or not yet completed

  • “Instruct immediate suspension of staff with credible allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse against them.”
  • “Propose to the Security Council the adoption of a Special Protocol on Preventing sexual exploitation and abuse as part of the mandate governing mission deployments.”
  • “Request the Controller to explore the possible use of ex gratia payments to victims in exceptional cases and where the aforementioned Member States’ designated mechanisms do not lead to an appropriate outcome.”
  • “Member States asked to agree to obtain DNA samples of uniformed personnel alleged to have committed sexual exploitation and abuse.”
  • “Include in every Personal History Profile (PHP), or its equivalent within the specific United Nations entity, agreeing that past records of employment with other United Nations entities may be accessed”

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