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The UN's fatally flawed 'new approach'
to sexual abuse

March 10, 2017 (New York) — The Code Blue Campaign expected much more of the UN report issued on March 9th, Special measures for protection from sexual exploitation and abuse: a new approach. In fact, we’re profoundly disappointed.
When Secretary-General António Guterres appointed the High-level Task Force on whose work this report is based, he specifically asked for "game-changing strategies" to address a problem that has plagued the UN for decades. At first glance, the report’s "victim-centered approach" appears to break new ground, but that promise crumbles upon closer inspection.
Instead, the report is curiously and unsettlingly lacking in initiatives that could bring the UN any closer to its age-long goal of "zero tolerance." It would not be difficult to grace this statement with a paragraph-by-paragraph critique. However, the report is so wanting in four crucial ways that we must confine ourselves to its fatal flaws.
First, the United Nations continues to ignore its fundamental conflict of interest when it comes to dealing with criminal accusations lodged against its own personnel. This report makes much of the need to support victims, but there is no understanding that the interests of crime victims cannot be served by the same organization that employs the accused.
Case in point: A woman appears at the door of a UN peacekeeping mission’s compound and alleges rape by someone working under the UN flag. There begins the conflict of interest; she is questioned by UN staff who are, by definition, co-workers of the alleged rapist, and who will take it upon themselves to determine the ‘credibility’ of her allegation. How is justice to be achieved? All the victims' rights advocates one might assign, and all the services one might offer, cannot square the contradiction that allows UN staff to intervene on both sides of a criminal case, standing in for police investigators, defense attorneys, prosecutors and judges simultaneously.
Second, throughout the report, there is no mention of the glaring double standard: for a civilian peacekeeper accused of a crime of sexual violence, justice need never be faced. The UN’s so-called 'investigations' are purely administrative. They may lead to demotion or dismissal; they will not lead to jail. Not only does the UN lack the legal authority or mandate to investigate crimes, but with the rarest of exceptions, non-military UN personnel are never referred by their co-workers to appropriate law enforcement officials.
This report makes passing reference to extra-territorial jurisdiction, but that’s an illusory concept, and one that governments have consistently rejected since it was first proposed a decade ago; they have judged it an outlandishly complex, inequitable, and unrealistic means of ensuring criminal accountability for non-military UN personnel. Imagine that a mid-level UN staff member from Papua New Guinea commits rape while posted to Haiti. Does anyone really believe that Papua New Guinea, with or without extra-territorial jurisdiction, is suddenly going to pursue prosecution? And who conducts the investigation? Would the alleged victims and witnesses have the opportunity to see justice done; would the accused have the opportunity to meet his accuser?
What the UN remains unwilling to grasp is that sexual violence is a crime. When its own personnel—military or non-military—are accused of crimes, the UN must step aside and let justice take its course. The new approach sustains an old practice: when its civilian staff are accused, the UN muscles in, handling serious crimes as though they were administrative matters. The approach cannot be called “victim-centered.” It’s a terrible betrayal of victims.
Third, the Secretary-General has devised what he calls a "voluntary compact" between the United Nations and Member States. It’s obviously well-intentioned, but it lays out a series of platitudes to which Member States could subscribe, if they wished, but without any feeling of obligation. That’s always the problem with such compacts: voluntarism rarely works. Criminal accountability is not optional. When dealing with sexual abuse, there’s no room for anything but obligatory adherence.
Fourth, and perhaps most important, the Special measures report refuses to recognize that the organization’s failure to stamp out sexual exploitation and abuse committed ‘under the UN flag’ over these many years cannot be cured by further tinkering. And this report tinkers. It also mystifies, and it improvises. The phrases are florid, but the substance is pallid.
It is, of course, incredibly tough for the organization to agree to recuse itself, despite the glaring conflict of interest when populations are told to report crimes committed BY the United Nations TO the United Nations. But surely there comes a time when the evidence says enough is enough. The tragedy of this report is that things will not change. The Secretary-General, one year hence, will find himself in a static state of frustration.
Code Blue is under no such stricture. We have devised a solution and have consulted closely with experts in sexual violence and victims’ rights, lawyers and judges, and diplomats and politicians. It involves the establishment of an impartial court mechanism where structure, finance, neutrality, accountability, due process, and justice for victims will work in tandem to end impunity for these crimes. 
Mr. Guterres points out, in paragraph 12, that the persistence of sexual exploitation and abuse has been compounded by many factors, including “… insufficient attention and unsustained efforts on the part of the senior United Nations leadership and Member States, until provoked by crisis.”
That’s quite an indictment of his predecessor, not to mention the departments of the Secretariat that have held sway over past efforts to address sexual exploitation and abuse. We would not be reading this report if the prior failure were not palpable. So why does the UN Secretary-General entrust reform to the same people and entities who have failed in the past to diagnose or cure a ‘scourge’ that has found its way to the top of his list of priorities?
Mr. Guterres says he will stay personally engaged, and we believe him. But we shall strive to persuade him that the game-changing strategies he requested exist.
They just won’t be found where he is looking.


AIDS-Free World is an international advocacy organization devoted to exposing and addressing injustice, abuse, and inequality. We launched the Code Blue Campaign in May 2015 to end impunity for sexual exploitation and abuse by UN peacekeeping personnel. Twitter: @AIDS_Free_World

(UN Photo / Violaine Martin)