Expert Calls for Greater Accountability for Sexual Abuse by UN Personnel

Jane Connors delivers remarks at the high-level meeting on the prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse
Credit: UN Photo/Evan Schneider

The latest report by the United Nations Victims’ Rights Advocate (VRA) reviews the progress made in 2019 to address sexual exploitation and abuse by United Nations personnel, and calls on the international community to dedicate additional resources to supporting and protecting victims and ensuring accountability. [UN News] Jane Connors, the first-ever UN Victims’ Rights Advocate is responsible for strengthening the institutional responses to sexual violence and abuse by peacekeepers and other personnel, and her latest report identifies many developments while calling on the international community to “address the root causes of sexual exploitation and abuse, including gender inequality and the deep power imbalance between [UN] personnel and those whom we are mandated to protect and aid.” See Special measures for protection from sexual exploitation and abuse – Report of the Secretary-General, 17 February 2020, para. 4. Connors mentions particular challenges, including high turnover within the UN, resolving paternity claims, protecting victims’ confidentiality while promoting accountability, providing material assistance to victims, and identifying and addressing sexual exploitation and abuse in the many countries without dedicated UN victims’ rights advocates in the field. See id.

Progress in UN-System Response

The VRA report notes that, in response to a 2019 VRA request and a 2017 General Assembly resolution on Special measures for protection from exploitation and abuse, the UN system has made progress in terms of identifying the human and financial resources dedicated to the prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) and in staffing the UN Secretariat with individuals – 16 total, distributed among various offices – whose work specifically focuses on advancing SEA prevention measures. See id. at para. 7. According to the report, agencies, funds, and programs have mainstreamed the “prevention of and response to sexual exploitation and abuse across all programming” and all UN personnel is now “expected to incorporate awareness and prevention” of SEA into their work. See id.

Further, the report notes that the VRA has extended the mandate of the Special Coordinator on Improving the UN Response to Sexual Exploitation and Abuse through 2020 to sustain “high-level attention on the issue.” See id. at para. 6. The Special Coordinator chairs a UN system-wide working group on SEA that is tasked with harmonizing and strengthening prevention and response approaches. See id. The working group is composed of representatives from the High-level Steering Group on preventing sexual exploitation – the principal forum for coordinating the implementation of the VRA’s strategy – as well as various UN entities. See id. All UN organizations develop and implement initiatives related to SEA prevention under the umbrella of the UN system-wide working group. See id.

Humanitarian & Development Settings

The VRA reiterates that exposure to sexual exploitation and abuse is not limited to peacekeeping missions, but may also be prevalent during humanitarian and development operations. See id. at para. 8. The Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), which coordinates agencies involved in providing humanitarian assistance and has an IASC Champion dedicated to the protection from sexual exploitation and abuse and sexual harassment, has implemented various measures to address SEA and ensure a coherent strategy among agencies on protection from and response to SEA. See id. The IASC, working with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Executive Director who previously served as IASC Champion, developed a plan to address and protect from SEA in the context of humanitarian operations at the State level, prioritizing 1) reporting mechanisms, 2) quality assistance to victims, and 3) increasing capacity to conduct confidential investigations and track progress. See id. at para. 9. The report indicates that the plan has now been implemented in 32 countries. See id. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), currently serving as the IASC Champion, has prioritized prevention; methods to facilitate reporting, including the removal of reporting barriers; and, funding for trainings as well as community outreach and communications programs. See id. In September 2020, the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) Executive Director will take over as IASC Champion. See id.

Importantly, in 2019, the IASC revised its six core principles to “prohibit any sexual relationship between those providing humanitarian assistance and protection and a person benefitting from such assistance or protection.” See id. at para. 11.

Accountability Framework

The VRA has instituted mandatory action plans for all UN entities to report on the measures that they are taking to prevent and respond to SEA. See id. at para. 13. In 2019, 50 UN entities submitted a response – an increase from 37 and 35 in 2018 and 2017, respectively. See id. The VRA’s senior staff certifies that all allegations are reported and that a subsequent mandatory training is conducted. See id. at para. 14. Entities that are not part of the UN Secretariat and therefore not required to report to the UN General Assembly also submit certifications. See id. at para. 15. In 2019, 30 of these entities submitted a certification. See id. After reviewing the submissions, the VRA has found that it is necessary to improve the consistency of trainings, the enforcement of mitigation measures, and the response to fears of retaliation when submitting reports. See id. at para. 16. The VRA requests that the 2020 plans include strengthened action in these areas. See id.

Relatedly, in 2019, several UN entities, including UNICEF, UNHCR, UNFPA, and UN-Women, conducted independent, victim-centered reviews of their policies on tackling SEA and sexual harassment, which resulted in concrete recommendations that they will be implemented as part of their risk management process. See id. at para. 18.

Prioritizing Victims’ Rights and Dignity

The report notes progress that has been made in “institutionalizing a victim-centred approach,” the “centerpiece” of the VRA’s strategy, in all UN-system efforts. See id. at para. 22. In 2019, the UN protocol on the provision of assistance to victims of sexual exploitation and abuse was finalized by the VRA and will be presented in 2020. See id. The protocol sets out standards to “strengthen a coordinated, system-wide approach to the provision of assistance and support, which prioritizes the rights and dignity of victims, regardless of the affiliation of the perpetrators.” See id. Unlike previous UN approaches to the issue, the protocol also covers sexual exploitation and abuse by members of non-UN international forces and personnel of implementing partners (these may include governments or government institutions, NGOs, civil society organizations, or intergovernmental organizations). See id. at paras. 20, 22.

The VRA has also convened the “first face-to-face meeting of the Field Victims’ Rights Advocates” to assess the impact of her work and is conducting a “pilot mapping” of victims’ services and capacities in 13 countries, which has already resulted in the identification of gaps in services for victims of SEA, such as lack of access to legal assistance or to safety and protection. See id. at paras. 25-26.

In general, the VRA notes that the Field Victims’ Rights Advocates located in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haiti, and South Sudan have had a positive impact in, for example, providing legal assistance to facilitate paternity claims, ensuring timely assistance is provided to victims who report SEA allegations, and providing financial support to cover medical costs related to SEA, among other types of support. See id. at paras. 27-30.

Risk Management

The VRA has developed a toolkit for peacekeeping and special political missions that became available in June 2019 and provides a systemic approach to managing the risks associated with SEA. See id. at para. 32. As part of the risk management strategy, the Multi-Partner Trust Fund Office, the UN Development Programme (UNDP), and Member States who donate to the UN also signed an agreement in 2019 stating that all “entities seeking pooled funding are required to comply with the public reporting mechanism to report allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse.” See id. at 33. Additionally, various programs have been introduced to increase transparency in the reporting of SEA incidents and strengthen investigations into allegations, including by improving data collection procedures and coordination among all individuals and entities involved. See id. at paras. 34-40.

As part of the risk management strategy, the VRA has also indicated that the UN has a role in facilitating criminal accountability for personnel who commit sexual crimes by 1) ensuring the allegations are referred to the relevant Member State and 2) cooperating with national authorities to investigate and prosecute. See id. at para. 44. Since July 2016, the UN has cooperated with national authorities in 13 cases involving UN officials and experts, of which two have resulted in convictions. See id. at para. 46. To date, no national proceedings have led to sanctions for non-UN personnel or third-party perpetrators. See id. at paras. 46-47.

Member State & Civil Society Engagement

The VRA has made progress engaging with Member States and civil society to ensure that they also work towards eradicating SEA. See id. at 48-49. Notably, the Civil Society Advisory Board on prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse became operation in 2019. Sed id. at para. 51. The Board is composed of six experts who advice the VRA on how to strengthen civil society engagement to address SEA by UN personnel and non-UN forces. See id.

2019 Allegations

Various allegations were reported in 2019 at peacekeeping and special political missions, involving UN staff and the personnel of implementing partners, and non-UN forces. See id. at paras. 54-65. Eighty allegations involved personnel at peacekeeping or special political missions, the majority relating to the UN peacekeeping missions in the Central African Republic and in the Republic of Congo. See id. at para. 55. Ninety-five allegations were reported involving UN staff and related personnel, an increase from 93 in 2018. See id. at para. 60. Thirty-five are under investigation and 26 are under preliminary assessment while the remaining allegations were unsubstantiated or closed. See id. Allegations involving the personnel of implementing partners also increased in 2019 to 164, compared to 113 in 2018. See id. at para. 63. Of those allegations, 69 are under investigation, 27 are in preliminary assessment, and 24 have been referred to the implementing partner. See id. The status of 11 allegations is unknown, and the others have not been substantiated or are closed. See id. Only one allegation involving non-UN forces was received, and the case has been referred to the relevant Member State. See id. at para. 64. This is a decrease from previous years that, according to the report, may be attributed to the fact that fewer non-UN forces have been deployed compared to previous years, the UN access to areas where SEA may take place is restricted, or lack of UN monitoring may lead to less reporting rather than less incidents. See id. at para. 65.


The VRA has instructed that all allegations received by the UN are reported and investigated in order to “balance victims’ rights to confidentiality with our organizations’ responsibilities to… investigate serious sexual misconduct allegations, especially when a victim chooses not to pursue a complaint.” See id. at para. 66. Further, the VRA reiterates her call on the UN to designate more “Field Victims’ Rights Advocates” to create a network across UN peacekeeping, humanitarian, and development sectors and thus be able to provide more comprehensive services to victims. See id. at para. 67. Currently, there are field-based VRAs only in Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, and Haiti – where the most allegations had been reported – but not in most other countries where UN works.

Finally, the VRA calls for additional resources – from Member State contributions or additional support for the trust fund in support of victims of sexual exploitation – dedicated to SEA protections, in particular resources for interventions that can be used on an emergency basis and that are available to victims who have a paternity claim. See id. at para. 68.

Additional Information

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