Are UN Abusers Immune to #MeToo?

15 December 2017

António Guterres
Secretary-General of the United Nations
UN Secretariat
One United Nations Plaza
New York, NY 10017

Open Letter

Download as a PDF

Mr. Secretary-General, 

“The majority of the cases of sexual exploitation and abuse,” you said on 18 September, “are done by the civilian organizations of the United Nations and not in peacekeeping operations.”

In light of our research and experience, we agree. The annual Secretary-General’s Special Measures report documents only a fraction of the allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse made against UN personnel across the UN system, omitting countless reports filed by UN personnel against other UN personnel. It is startling, therefore, that the United Nations has consistently failed to define and clarify how it responds to allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse committed by its international civilian personnel.

In a 7 July 2017 letter to AIDS-Free World, Miguel de Serpa Soares, Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs, confirmed that “the Organization’s established practice” is “to refer credible allegations that United Nations officials or experts on mission may have committed a crime for investigation and prosecution by the appropriate national authorities, whether they be national authorities in the host State, or the State of nationality of the accused.”

We don’t dispute the bona fides of Mr. Serpa Soares, but we were aware that the so-called “established practice” has a surprising number of variations. A recent case-in-point is that of an international UN staff member in the UN mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo accused of committing multiple rapes of a female child. On 21 November 2017, your spokesman announced that, following the Head of Mission’s determination of sufficient evidence to warrant an investigation into the alleged crimes, “the matter was referred to the Office of Internal Oversight Services [OIOS] for appropriate action.” It was not, per Mr. Serpa Soares’ assertion of established practice, referred to the national authorities in the host State nor to the State of nationality of the accused.

On 22 November, we wrote to you seeking clarification of the procedures being followed in that case. Under-Secretary-General for Field Support, Mr. Atul Khare, responded on 28 November:

Where an allegation is substantiated, the staff member will face disciplinary sanctions under the Organization’s legal framework, which may include termination and financial sanctions. … Further, should a United Nations investigation find credible allegations of criminal conduct by a staff member, the Secretary-General would bring such allegations to the attention of the State of nationality of the staff member concerned. In addition, the Organization’s practice is to cooperate with other national authorities, such as the authorities of the State in which the alleged conduct took place.

You can understand our confusion over the process being followed in the child rape case in the DRC. Mr. Khare’s letter provided negligible illumination. He wrote that concerns about the integrity of the “ongoing investigation” prevented him from providing answers to specific questions. On 1 December, after consulting criminal and international human rights lawyers, we sent a re-formulated letter to Mr. Khare that was shorn of any reference to the specific case in the DRC. We asked only for a clear exposition of established procedures.

We have yet to receive a response to our 1 December letter. 

In the meantime, on 7 December, Jane Connors, the UN Victims’ Rights Advocate, held a press conference in South Sudan and was asked about the processes that follow allegations made against UN personnel. She gave the following answer, which—because the UN’s “nearly verbatim transcript” significantly doctored Ms. Connors’ responses and omitted several words—our own staff fully transcribed:

When it’s an allegation, clearly, it remains an allegation, and the disposition of the case, if the case goes further, will be in the hands of—unless it’s a UN staff member; well, not unless it’s a UN staff member, if it’s a person who’s related to the UN and an international—there are disciplinary measures, and only disciplinary measures because it’s not a judicial system.[1]

A UN international civilian staff member accused of raping a child, then, is subject to “disciplinary measures, and only disciplinary measures.”

Mr. Secretary-General, we are left to wonder: Which is it? Are credible allegations that a UN international civilian staff member may have committed a crime referred (per Mr. Serpa Soares) to “national authorities in the host State, or the State of nationality of the accused”? Or are they first referred “to the state of nationality of the staff member concerned” (per Mr. Khare)? Or (per Ms. Connors) are there “disciplinary measures, and only disciplinary measures”?

You can understand our frustration. You yourself were appointed UN High Commissioner for Refugees in 2005 after the resignation of Mr. Ruud Lubbers on sexual harassment charges. You know well that the UN’s unresolved, internal sexual exploitation and abuse crisis stretches back decades. Yet to this day, the method for handling “the majority of the cases” (your words) remains ad hoc and secretive. Senior members of your staff are openly contradicting one another.

The UN Organization continues to choose opacity over transparency when it comes to defining its procedures and practices. We regret to say that the lack of transparency approaches obfuscation when it comes to honestly documenting the numbers of allegations reported across the system each year. 

Sometimes, however, dramatic revelations come to light. We are aware that during this very year, the staff association of a relatively small UN entity conducted a survey that showed a shocking pattern of sexual harassment and abuse. Thirty-six of 427 staff who responded said that during the first months of 2017 alone, they had either received at least one unwelcomed or unwanted sexual advance (verbal or written) from a colleague; received at least one request for a sexual favor; or been subjected at least once to “physical conduct of a sexual nature.” Only two of the 36 reported the abuse, the primary reasons being: “Didn’t know whom to go to”; “Didn’t believe in corrective measures”; “Afraid of retaliation”; or “Afraid of bias against staff who raise ethical issues.”

By any standard, the survey points to a toxic work environment and an astonishing failure of leadership on the part of the United Nations. 

It’s quite possible that other UN offices, departments, funds, agencies, and programs conduct their own sexual harassment and abuse surveys, which never receive the full glare of public attention. One thing is certain: In this era of #Me Too, the world’s women are rejecting repeated assertions of good faith. They are demanding accountability. It is only a matter of time before the world will shine a spotlight on the UN. The situation requires the intervention of the Secretary-General.

Mr. Secretary-General, as we have said on numerous occasions, we believe that a meeting between you and the Code Blue Campaign would benefit the UN Organization. Our position is by no means merely to criticize. We have a number of carefully considered, thoroughly vetted, concrete proposals.

We respectfully suggest that you begin by giving a fair hearing to one of our many proposed solutions, one that would reveal the true size and scope of the problem before you.

We suggest that an independent, internationally recognized, third-party firm conduct a comprehensive, anonymous, and confidential survey. To provide all UN staff with the assurance that they could not possibly face retaliation, the survey would not be managed by the UN Organization but would be overseen by civil society and member states. We feel confident that civil society would and could marshal the required resources to fund such an endeavor. All members of the so-called “UN family” would be invited to answer essential questions about the UN’s ongoing sexual exploitation and abuse crisis. Have they been subjected to sexual harassment, exploitation, or abuse? Have they played the role of silent bystanders? Have they reported abuse? What do UN personnel understand about “established practice”? What do they know about reporting procedures? About the disciplinary process? Are they afraid of retaliation? Do they believe that justice will ever be served?

Mr. Secretary-General, we are living during an extraordinary moment of social and cultural change. Damage control and denial are putting the UN on the wrong side of history. The United Nations would do well to embrace the #MeToo movement rather than hide behind platitudes that allow sexual predators to roam the landscape of multilateralism.

Yours sincerely,
Paula Donovan                                              Stephen Lewis
Co-Director, AIDS-Free World                      Co-Director, AIDS-Free World
cc. Mr. Atul Khare, Under Secretary-General; Ms. Heidi Mendoza, Under-Secretary-General; Mr. Miguel de Serpa Soares, Under-Secretary-General; Ms. Jane Holl Lute, Under-Secretary-General

[1] Ms. Connors went on to state that broad information is disclosed on the UN website while claims remain at the allegation stage, but that the names of the accused certainly are not. The names of the perpetrators, she said, would be disclosed “at a later stage, once there is a resolu … disposition of the case.” However, in the UN’s official transcript of Ms. Connors’ response to media, her words were altered to read: “Those allegations are made clear on the website and we can provide that to you but the names are not.”


AIDS-Free World's Code Blue Campaign aims to end impunity for sexual exploitation and abuse by UN peacekeeping personnel.

Media contact:
Gill Mathurin,, +1-646-924-1710   

(UN Photo / Mark Garten)