The new UN peacekeeper sex abuse numbers no one noticed

March 8, 2016:  The United Nations’ damage control team must be celebrating its close call last week: headlines about the UN’s peacekeeper sex abuse crisis were bad, but they could have been much, much worse. The tried-and-true tactic of waiting until midday Friday, New York time, to release the Secretary-General’s annual progress report on “zero tolerance” for sexual abuse by UN personnel worked again. As predicted, most journalists only had time to skim the report before filing, and they relied heavily on the UN’s press release. That heat-and-serve lede went out nearly verbatim: “Total allegations rose to 69 in 2015 from 52 the year before.”

In fact, that was last year’s news. We looked at the more expansive UN data that is now posted online and found the devil in this year’s details. During January and February of 2016 alone, there have been 25 allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation. If that rate keeps up, last year’s allegations against peacekeeping personnel will more than double, to an annual total of 150 allegations in 2016.

Even that is a lowball estimate, since an “allegation” is a unique UN unit of measurement that doesn’t represent one perpetrator or one victim. The UN groups as many as ten sex crimes together and counts them as a single “allegation”—a statistical maneuver described in a New York press briefing by a top peacekeeping official last month as a "science and art.”  

In straightforward language, the 25 allegations recorded in January and February of this year alone actually represent a minimum of 31 victims and 47 perpetrators. At this rate, 2016 will end with some 256 peacekeeping personnel accused of sexual offenses by at least 186 women and children; 18 women and girls will have been impregnated.

Another stunner in the newly released data went unnoticed. Last year, after the Code Blue campaign exposed the UN’s callous mishandling and subsequent cover-up of peacekeeper rapes in the Central African Republic, the Secretary-General took an unprecedented step: he called for the resignation of that country’s top UN official, on whose 11-month watch a total of 16 UN peacekeepers had been accused of sexual offenses against 16 victims. A new Special Representative of the Secretary-General was appointed. In the half-year since he took over last September, the numbers have skyrocketed: 46 perpetrators reported by 34 victims. No further resignations have been demanded. The Secretary-General’s “zero tolerance” for any leader who isn’t up to the job was short-lived.

You can’t end violence against women and girls with empty promises. On this International Women’s Day, the world’s women deserve more. 


Read Code Blue's reaction to the Secretary-General's annual report on sexual exploitation and abuse by UN personnel and our proposed solution to address the problem. 

(Photo credit: UN Photo / Sylvain Liechti)