By Paula Donovan
16 October 2018

Jane Connors, the UN's Victims' Rights Advocate, has spent the past year traveling the world, meeting with victims of sexual exploitation and abuse committed by UN personnel.

Ms. Connors is a prominent symbol of Secretary-General António Guterres’ “New Approach,” which is the name given to the array of initiatives introduced in early 2017 to end the UN’s long-festering sexual abuse crisis. Yet the victims who have conferred with Ms. Connors, an Australian law professional, have regarded her with great suspicion. 

“Some said they've lost hope, especially as they have had multiple interactions with people like myself,” Ms. Connors said at an event hosted by the UN and the UK government during the opening week of this year’s General Assembly in New York. “They've seen a passing parade of high-level individuals and they've hoped that their situations would change. But nothing has changed.”

We wish we could say we were surprised by the victims’ vote of no confidence.

In his inaugural address as Secretary-General, Mr. Guterres described the eradication of sexual offenses by UN personnel as the first item on his reform agenda, promising “structural, legal, and operational measures to make the zero-tolerance policy…a reality.” A decisive moment in his campaign occurred just over a year ago, in September 2017, when Guterres chaired a high-level meeting at the UN, which he convened “to solemnize our commitments and collective pledge to increased accountability.”

The first anniversary of that high-level meeting provides a good opportunity to survey the record of Mr. Guterres' accomplishments.  

Mr. Guterres promised to “meet personally with victims to hear from them directly.” Since he made that vow, we have detected no meaningful effort by the Secretary-General to listen to the concerns of those most harmed by the actions of accused UN predators. Our organization has advocated on behalf of three victims who have written detailed letters asking for a meeting. Mr. Guterres has declined each request.

The overall job of managing the New Approach has been given to Jane Holl Lute, whose title is Special Coordinator on Improving the United Nations Response to Sexual Exploitation and Abuse. Yet Ms. Lute is only working part-time and, in July 2018, was named as Guterres’ Special Envoy for Cyprus. Ms. Lute has not followed through with her promise to reconvene the civil society group she met with in September 2017, immediately following the high-level meeting. The signal accomplishment of her two and a half years on the job appears to be an update of the "No Excuses Card," the pocket-sized card distributed to peacekeepers to remind them to refrain from sexual exploitation and abuse. 

Mr. Guterres has celebrated “the many Member States” that "have signed a Voluntary Compact with the United Nations on our mutual commitment to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse." The Voluntary Compact, according to the UN, is “an unprecedented demonstration of solidarity and a firm commitment to addressing the issue comprehensively and effectively.” As of the current count, 98 Member States have signed the Voluntary Compact.

But how can contractual obligations be voluntary?

Mr. Guterres has also lauded the Circle of Leadership—“comprised of Heads of State and Government committed to end impunity and strengthen measures to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse in international deployments”—as a “major element” of his New Approach. Some 71 incumbent and former heads of state and government have joined the Circle of Leadership.

We are unable to determine the substantive difference between a leader who is a member of the Circle and a leader who isn’t. 

Mr. Guterres has hailed the Victims Trust Fund, which he described as an “effective remedy” that would provide "the resources victims need." In fact, the Trust Fund, which currently holds a scant $2 million, provides no direct assistance to individual victims. Instead, the UN disperses the funds as grants to civil society organizations that provide generalized services in a fraction of the affected communities in a small number of countries. We fail to see how grants for community centers in the DRC and self-sufficiency projects in Liberia will make any headway in curbing sexual exploitation and abuse.

In response to the “recent wave of reports detailing sexual harassment in the workplace from many organizations and institutions worldwide,” Mr. Guterres formed a task force on addressing sexual harassment in the UN system. As chair, he chose Jan Beagle, who had, just months earlier, been promoted to Under-Secretary-General for Management while she herself was under investigation for workplace harassment at UNAIDS, where she was a Deputy Executive Director. 

Mr. Guterres has made a point of noting that “sexual exploitation and abuse is not [just] a problem of peacekeeping, it is a problem of the entire United Nations.” He has affirmed 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.”

But how many non-military UN personnel have faced justice? We are tracking a number of cases involving non-military UN personnel—including the case of an international civilian employee in the DRC accused of repeatedly raping a child and the reopened sexual assault and harassment investigation against former UNAIDS Deputy Executive Director Luiz Loures—but have seen no evidence that non-military perpetrators will face anything approaching real punishment.  

Mr. Guterres has placed considerable faith in the Victims’ Rights Advocate concept, which he promotes as “critical to providing protection, support, and recourse to justice.” Ms. Connors was appointed as the systemwide Victims’ Rights Advocate in August 2017 to “support an integrated, strategic response to victim assistance in coordination with United Nations system actors with responsibility for assisting victims.” She is responsible for working “with all parts of the UN system” to “make sure that an integrated response to victim assistance…exists. 

During the event at the UN last month, Ms. Connors listed some of the questions that she has been asked by victims:  

"Why did they experience the harm?" Ms. Connors said victims demanded to know. "Why were complaint pathways so complex? Could they be assured that immediate provision of assistance and support and investigative and other processes were confidential, factored in their wishes, and ensured their protection? How could they access medium- and long-term quality health care, educational livelihood, and legal assistance? Could they be confident they would not be lost in multiple bureaucratic systems? Was there tailored support for child victims, including for children born of sexual exploitation and abuse? Could they expect the UN to help them take forward paternity and child support claims? Why hadn't they been informed about the progress or results of their cases in a timely matter or at all? When could they expect their abuser to be held accountable? … I could go on, but I won’t."

Ms. Connors gave no indication of how or whether she answered the questions. The victims, it is clear, are still waiting for a UN policy that could be described as a “new approach.”

Paula Donovan is Co-Director of AIDS-Free World and its Code Blue Campaign.


(UN Photo / Evan Schneider)