IN THIS ISSUE:
UK Safeguarding Summit Transformed by Code Blue Open Letter
It's Not Complicated. UN Must Clarify Immunity
Community Consultations Uncover Lasting Trauma in Sierra Leone
Code Blue Stands with Prashanti Tiwari
The Fallout from the UNAIDS Scandal
Nobel Committee Recognizes the Fight Against Impunity for Sexual Violence
UK SAFEGUARDING SUMMIT TRANSFORMED BY CODE BLUE OPEN LETTER
"I object to and withdraw from the UK’s International Safeguarding ‘Summit.”
In releasing an open letter that began with these words, Paula Donovan upended the UK government's International Safeguarding Summit, which, according to the organizers, was intended "to drive collective action to prevent and respond to sexual exploitation and abuse and sexual harassment in the aid sector." The letter, addressed to Penny Mordaunt, the Secretary of State for International Development, laid out Donovan’s "profound objections to the non-inclusive design and haphazard, last-minute organization" of the summit and noted that invited delegates would be "passive audience members who will listen, yet again, as powerful institutions' appointed spokespersons mount the stage to repeat the 'commitments' that have already been recited, over and over, from similar international platforms during similar expensive, time-consuming meetings." The letter can be read in full here.
Among those inspired to action by Donovan's letter was Alexia Pepper de Caires, a former Save the Children employee and co-founder of an advocacy group called NGO Safe Space. During the morning session, she walked to the stage and (politely) disrupted Minister Mordaunt's keynote speech. “A number of us would like to be on this platform,” she said, “but we have been kept back by DFID and your attempts to control the women who are speaking out in this sector, very eloquently put by Paula Donovan who refused to get on a plane last night to come to this summit.”
After Pepper de Caires concluded, Mordaunt defended the summit and noted that she "was not aware until I saw Paula's letter this morning of the situation." Mordaunt then "offered to give up the summary slot of this summit to you or colleagues that want to speak," an offer that Pepper de Caires and two other advocates accepted. Mordaunt concluded, "I'm sorry that I wasn't aware of the specific issue with Code Blue until today and I will ensure that that doesn't happen again."
Donovan's letter, which was widely quoted in the press, reverberated among summit attendees, who saw it as a necessary wake-up call for those in positions of power to truly listen to victims, survivors, and feminist civil society experts. The Code Blue Campaign is following up with Minister Mordaunt, building upon the momentum of the summit’s unexpected highlight. See the story in The Guardian and the video of Pepper de Caires’ intervention.
IT'S NOT COMPLICATED. UN MUST CLARIFY IMMUNITY
After a 15-month internal investigation, UN Women announced in late September that a senior official, Ravi Karkara, had been found guilty of sexual transgressions against an unspecified number of men. Newsweek reported that "at least" eight made accusations against him. Karkara's punishment? Dismissal.
In an op-ed published by the Inter Press Service during the opening week of the UN General Assembly, Paula Donovan argued that once the UN has determined that the alleged act could have occurred and the alleged perpetrator is not protected by UN immunity, “the UN must stand aside and let the national authorities of the country where the alleged crime took place do their job.”The piece, which outlines the Code Blue proposal for a Temporary Independent Oversight Panel, can be read here.
COMMUNITY CONSULTATIONS UNCOVER LASTING TRAUMA IN SIERRA LEONE
The UN peacekeeping mission in Sierra Leone (1999-2006), known as UNAMSIL, was marred by shocking reports of sexual abuse committed by UN personnel. Yet throughout the duration of UNAMSIL and during the twelve years since, the UN has put no process in place to seek out victims' accounts or insights into the problem of peacekeeper sexual exploitation and abuse. The hundreds of people we spoke with during our Community Consultations, two of which were recently held in remote localities of the West African nation, told us that they have never been contacted by UN representatives.
The Consultations, which were facilitated with the help of local partner Timap for Justice, allow Sierra Leoneans to share experiences, concerns, and opinions on peacekeeping during structured discussions. We discovered that participants had a genuine need to be heard and acknowledged. Traumatic experiences from nearly two decades ago remain fresh in their minds, proving the worth of seeking out testimonials and the unique perspectives of witnesses to peacekeeping missions that are no longer operational.
In one Consultation, we heard a story that is emblematic of the impunity with which the peacekeeping forces are permitted to operate. A group of girls, most young, were crossing a river in a canoe, traveling to meet peacekeepers who sought sex in exchange for gifts and money. When the canoe capsized, the children drowned. Community members felt powerless to take action. One resident noted that the community’s only security came from the UN. How could they report something that implicated the UN to the UN?
We met several children born of unions between local women and peacekeeper fathers, youngsters who suffer discrimination because of their distinctive looks and lack of a present father. A high value is placed on family unification, we learned. Many mothers, children, and community leaders are eager to locate the missing fathers, whose abdication of responsibility is a powerful symbol of the worst tendencies of UN peacekeeping.
The Code Blue Campaign is currently working to organize our next set of Community Consultations, in Liberia, which hosted a UN peacekeeping mission from 2003 to 2018.
CODE BLUE STANDS WITH PRASHANTI TIWARI
The UN misapplies immunity to shield alleged predators from the reach of criminal justice. The saga of Prashanti Tiwari provides a compelling case in point.
In early 2018, Ms. Tiwari, a women's rights advocate in the Indian state of Bihar, filed a criminal sexual assault claim against Diego Palacios, the head of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in India. In response to queries from the Indian authorities, UNFPA—incredibly, in a letter signed by Mr. Palacios himself—asserted (incorrectly) that he is protected by immunity. The police investigation stalled. Instead, the UN conducted its own months-long internal investigation. The UN took this action despite the objections of Ms. Tiwari, the victim. In August, Ms. Tiwari learned that the UN's staff—using a ridiculously high burden of proof—found “insufficient clear and convincing evidence” to corroborate her claims. Nevertheless, UNFPA saw fit to replace Diego Palacios with an interim country director in India.
Ms. Tiwari, who has turned to the Code Blue Campaign, wasn't surprised. Neither were we. The UN investigation was riddled with inconsistencies, bizarre standards of proof, and retrograde analyses of evidence, faults that are inherent in all the UN’s internal, bureaucratic investigations of sexual abuse and harassment committed by its personnel.
Due in no small part to Ms. Tiwari dogged persistence, the police investigation is now resuming, but only haltingly and with continued UN interference.
The Code Blue Campaign is in the midst of a multipronged initiative to pressure the UN to acknowledge that Palacios’ alleged behavior is not protected by UN immunity and, as a consequence, should be subject to a fair and impartial investigation by Indian police authorities—without restrictions.
THE FALLOUT FROM THE UNAIDS SCANDAL
Paula Donovan published an explosive op-ed just prior to the opening of the International AIDS Conference in Amsterdam in July, ensuring that Michel Sidibé, the embattled Executive Director of UNAIDS, would not escape the conference without substantive, and vocal, criticism of his abuse of authority in defending his friend and deputy, Luiz Loures, against charges of sexual assault.
The piece noted that Mr. Sidibé and other top UN officials—according to information leaked to Donovan—had been using private email addresses to plot retaliation on Luiz Loures’ behalf and control the damage done to Sidibé’s reputation. While publicly threatening UNAIDS staff and civil society groups that failure to unite behind Mr. Sidibé would lead directly to funding cuts, job losses, and financial harm to AIDS activist organizations, the secretive group was simultaneously plotting the dissolution of UNAIDS with representatives of the disgraced global management consulting firm, McKinsey and Company. Other senior UN officials involved in the covert exchanges—which utilized Gmail to circumvent the UN’s servers—include Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed and Under-Secretary-General for Management Jan Beagle.
"As reasonable people, we should probably all be depressed about what these leaks reveal, and about the near-certain knowledge that like so many revelations before them, they’ll be repudiated and then ignored," wrote Donovan. "But for the first time since we launched our Code Blue Campaign to end impunity for sexual abuse by UN personnel, we can see women (feminists, that is; not female replicas of the most ruthless male leaders) all over the world calling the shots where sexual conduct is concerned. So I’m actually feeling hopeful."
During the opening ceremony, Mr. Sidibé was in the midst of delivering a speech when he was interrupted by a group of 23 feminist activists, who castigated him as "an enabler and protector of sexual harassment." The activists, many from South Africa, are open allies of the Code Blue Campaign. After the protest concluded, Sidibé announced, "I understand your anger… but let us make sure our fight against this epidemic is not divided."
UNAIDS continues to feel the reverberations from the botched handling of the sexual assault and harassment allegations lodged against Luiz Loures, UNAIDS Deputy Executive Director and close friend of over a decade of UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé.
In the spring, the UN announced that it would reopen the internal investigation of Loures, who had been cleared by investigators from the World Health Organization’s investigative arm and subsequently retired. The UN’s New York-based Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) was assigned to handle the task. In addition, UNAIDS’ Programme Coordinating Board (PCB)—which includes representatives of 22 governments from all geographic regions, the UNAIDS co-sponsors, and five representatives of nongovernmental organizations, including associations of people living with HIV—announced that an “Independent Expert Panel” would review UNAIDS policies and procedures in regard to sexual exploitation, abuse, and harassment. The panel’s mandate prohibits them from dealing with individual cases, whether reported or unreported.
Both the OIOS investigation and PCB panel have yet to issue their findings.
NOBEL COMMITTEE RECOGNIZES THE FIGHT AGAINST IMPUNITY FOR SEXUAL VIOLENCE
AIDS-Free World extends its warmest congratulations to our friend, Dr. Denis Mukwege, who, jointly with Nadia Murad, earned the Nobel Peace Prize for efforts to end impunity for sexual violence. This highest global recognition of their work could not be more richly deserved.
Dr. Mukwege endorsed the Code Blue Campaign upon its launch and continues to be an enthusiastic supporter.
In a statement, Dr. Mukwege said the prize reflects the “recognition of suffering and the need for just reparations for female victims of rape and sexual violence in countries across the world and on all continents.”
We couldn’t agree more.