Open Letter to Ambassadors of All United Nations Member States: UN Experts’ unseen peacekeeping report on sexual exploitation and abuse

March 16, 2015

Download the Expert Report
(UN Photo / Isaac Billy)


As you know, the Secretary-General reports to you annually on progress against sexual violations committed by UN peacekeeping personnel. This year’s “Special measures for protection from sexual exploitation and sexual abuse”[i] report, issued on March 13th, highlights the completion of a two-year-long “enhanced programme of action to combat sexual exploitation and abuse, a key aspect of which was the appointment of an independent team of experts to assess how four peacekeeping missions were addressing the challenge.” 

That independent team of experts submitted its assessment (the “Expert Team’s Report”[ii]) in November 2013. AIDS-Free World was sent a copy of the report by an anonymous UN source, who feared that because it is highly critical of the UN Secretariat and Troop Contributing Countries, the Expert Team’s Report would be quashed. Indeed, the annual report just submitted to you by the Secretary-General would appear to discount virtually the entire Expert Team’s Report.

We know that the UN has never disseminated the Expert Team’s Report. We therefore suspect that few if any governments are aware that independent experts, commissioned by the Secretary-General, made pointed criticisms about the way sexual violations in UN peacekeeping missions are handled. We are releasing the Report today because we believe it contains valuable material that differs profoundly from the Secretary-General’s own annual report on progress. It should be seen by all the Member States of the United Nations. 

To illustrate why the failure to disseminate the Expert Team’s Report to Member States is so critical, here is an initial comparison of some of the striking differences between the Secretary-General’s report and the Expert Team’s Report:

1. Reported allegations vs. actual cases of sexual exploitation and abuse

In his report to the General Assembly, the Secretary-General states that:

“For peacekeeping and special political missions, the total number of allegations received (51) is the lowest recorded since special measures for protection from sexual exploitation and abuse were first put in place and represents a decrease compared with 2013 (66).”[iii]

However, the Expert Team reported to the Secretary-General that:

“The UN does not know how serious the problem of SEA [sexual exploitation and abuse] is because the official numbers mask what appears to be significant amounts of underreporting of SEA. There are a number of reasons why, and these include:

  1. Fear of reporting inside and outside the UN /stigmatizing of whistleblowers within the UN and sometimes outside /culture of silence particularly within military and police,
  2. a sense of futility about reporting because of long delays in the enforcement process in NY and in mission and the rarity of remedial outcomes including rarity of victim assistance, and  
  3. record keeping problemswith numbers not matching from one source to another.”[iv]

and that:

“UN personnel in all the missions we visited could point to numerous suspected or quite visible cases of SEA that are not being counted or investigated.”[v]

2. Concern for UN staff vs. concern for victims

Declaring the Organization’s concern for every victim, the Secretary-General introduces his report with the statement that he “remains fully conscious that a single substantiated case of sexual exploitation or sexual abuse involving United Nations personnel is one case too many.”[vi]

Yet the Expert Team concluded that:

“Overall, there was noted a culture of enforcement avoidance, with managers feeling powerless to enforce anti-SEA rules, a culture of silence around reporting and discussing cases, and a culture of extreme caution with respect to the rights of the accused, and little accorded to the rights of the victim.”[vii]

3. Zero tolerance vs. impunity

Mr. Ban Ki-moon’s report assures Member States that: “The implementation of the Secretary-General’s zero-tolerance policy towards all forms of sexual exploitation and abuse by United Nations and related personnel remains a priority.”[viii]

By contrast, the Expert Team reported to the Secretary-General that:

“[The] team heard numerous expressions of frustration that those who break the rules are not punished and that impunity is more norm than exception.”[ix]

4. “Unsubstantiated” vs. inadequately investigated

This year, as in past years, the Secretary-General’s report lists each completed investigation of an allegation as either “substantiated” or “unsubstantiated.”[x]

The Experts identified that two-part classification as a misleading over-simplification:  the Secretary-General’s annual tally of “unsubstantiated” allegations implies, incorrectly, that upon careful investigation, it is discovered that many UN personnel are falsely accused of sexual exploitation and abuse each year. In fact, a significant percentage of allegations are dismissed by the UN as “unsubstantiated” because the organization lacks the expertise, the trained personnel, and the will to conduct full and proper investigations in pursuit of justice for victims. The Expert Team Report concluded that:

“As it stands now, the two category system allows cases to be assumed false when they are in fact simply unsubstantiated due to lack of promptly or properly collected evidence.”[xi]

5. Remedy vs. unremediated harm

The Secretary-General’s report asserts that:

“Zero tolerance must mean remediating the harm United Nations personnel have done to victims of sexual exploitation and abuse, and the children born of it.”[xii]

Yet the Expert Team noted high tolerance for exploitation and abuse, and a culture of impunity, which has had the opposite effect:

“This impunity has been debilitating for the many UN personnel who believe in, adhere to, and try to promote the zero tolerance policy, and creates unremediated harm to its victims.”[xiii]

The Expert Team’s Report reveals many other deeply concerning assessments that contrast sharply with the UN’s annual accounts to Member States. In addition to the sample discrepancies above, this year’s report by the Secretary-General conveys steady, encouraging progress towards zero tolerance that is nowhere reflected in the Expert Team’s observations. It also contains several of the fatal flaws of previous years’ reports, among them:

A failure to name and shame those most responsible. Concerned Member States have long discussed the problem that when uniformed personnel accused of sexual exploitation or abuse are disciplined by their own militaries, in many cases, neither the UN nor the victims are apprised of the outcomes of those cases. Further, Member States remain unaware if and when particular Troop Contributing Countries’ peacekeepers are repeatedly accused of violations. In his 2012 report, the Secretary-General promised that his future annual reports would include country-specific data, and last year he reaffirmed his commitment to cite offending countries.[xiv] The promised data appears nowhere in this year’s report.

A persistent insinuation that the lion’s share of the blame for sexual exploitation and abuse rests with Troop Contributing Countries and their uniformed personnel. That was the case a decade ago. But currently,allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse are made against a lower percentage of military peacekeepers than UN civilian peacekeeping personnel who report ultimately to the Secretary-General.

The continued collection of “allegations,” a statistically meaningless indicator. The UN measures its progress toward zero tolerance by counting the number of ‘allegations’ reported each year and comparing that number with prior years. However, one allegation does not necessarily refer to an accusation against one perpetrator made by one claimant: a single allegation may involve more than one perpetrator and/or more than one victim. In fact, one allegation might involve ten perpetrators, or ten victims. And there is no consistency across the UN:  different departments and agencies define ‘allegation’ differently, with some recording an incident in which several staff are implicated as one allegation, and others recording one allegation for each individual involved. At year’s end, the total number of ‘allegations’ reported by the Secretary-General may bear no resemblance to the number of UN personnel who were engaged in sexual exploitation and abuse, nor to the number of people victimized. Hence, the total that year cannot legitimately be compared with the totals from other years. No reasonable statistician would use “allegations” thus defined as a valid basis for comparison.

Excellency, we trust that you will find the attached Expert Team report illuminating.

Sincerely yours,

Paula Donovan                                      Stephen Lewis
Co-Director, AIDS-Free World           Co-Director, AIDS-Free World

[i] A/69/779: United Nations General Assembly. Special measures for protection from sexual exploitation and sexual abuse [Report of the Secretary-General]

[ii] Final report. Expert Mission to Evaluate Risks to SEA Prevention Efforts in MINUSTAH, UNMIL, MONUSCO, AND UNMISS [Expert Team’s Report]

[iii] Report of the Secretary-General, paragraph 18

[iv] Expert Team’s Report, page 14

[v] Expert Team’s Report, page 19

[vi] Report of the Secretary-General, paragraph 1

[vii] Expert Team’s Report, page 3

[viii] Report of the Secretary-General, paragraph 1

[ix] Expert Team’s Report, page 3

[x] Report of the Secretary-General, Annex III

[xi] Expert Team’s Report, page 22

[xii] Report of the Secretary-General, paragraph 95

[xiii] Expert Team’s Report, page 19

[xiv] A/67/766, paragraph 25; A/68/756, paragraph 3