March 18, 2019—When the United Nations is under siege from so many quarters, the abject failure to curtail sexual offenses within its own ranks is a gift to its foes. The release today of Secretary-General António Guterres’ annual progress report on “Special Measures for protection from sexual exploitation and abuse: implementing a zero-tolerance policy,” delivered that gift.

Days after his appointment in 2017, Mr. Guterres declared his signature priority: the disgrace faced by the UN year after year would finally end because he would restore real meaning to the hackneyed phrase “zero tolerance for sexual exploitation and abuse by United Nations personnel.” Under his leadership, victims would take center stage, transparency would supplant secrecy, Member States would rally, whistleblowers would become heroes, and “game-changing solutions” would be kicked into gear. This was a new Secretary-General who would finally quell the myth that soldiers under contract as peacekeepers are the only UN personnel who attack the people they’re meant to assist. The long-time UN official would admit that a crisis of depravity and impunity had its grip on the whole sprawling UN system. 

It was time, the new Secretary-General said, for a “New Approach.” To carry it out, he appointed women to high-level positions: Special Coordinator Jane Holl Lute would bring order to chaos; Jane Connors, his Victims’ Rights Advocate, would champion the injured. He called for a High-Level Meeting to rouse world leaders; committees and boards, task forces and networks, experts, advisors, and focal points to dismantle the crisis; new protocols to ensure uniform standards; vetting to block undesirables; training to enlighten; hotlines to report; more and better investigators to point perpetrators toward justice; more and better data to record every failure and track every trend. 

Expectations ran high two years ago; last year, they began to dip. But with today’s Special Measures Report on the progress and achievements of 2018, hope bottomed out.

Using data as unreliable as it is perplexing, the Report dispassionately states that 205 people who were told they could rely on UN personnel for protection or assistance in 2018 —overwhelmingly women and children, overwhelmingly from the most deprived and dangerous places on earth—were raped, molested, degraded, sexually exploited, and abused instead. Another 121 fell victim to the staff of UN implementing partners enlisted by the organization to conduct its business. 

“Allegations” (a misleading UN term coined to clump many incidents and perpetrators into smaller groupings) were made against 41 police and soldiers contracted from UN Member States’ defense forces as peacekeepers; 107 were reported against the UN’s civilian personnel. Although there are fewer civilian than uniformed UN personnel (90,000 vs. 100,000), 72.3% of the “allegations” were made against members of the UN’s civilian staff and related personnel. 

By the UN’s own reckoning, those numbers—as with all previous years’ data—are a fraction of the reality: literally countless victims don’t feel that they can report, and some parts of the UN don’t feel any need to report. In paragraphs scattered throughout, the Special Measures Report reveals Ms. Holl Lute’s failure to bring coherence or even compliance to the UN system’s response to sexual exploitation and abuse across its many entities. Promises of rules and regulations for system-wide application are unfulfilled or languishing at the “pilot” stage. Nevertheless, last year Mr. Guterres split his Special Coordinator’s attention between his top-priority issue and a new role, as his Special Envoy to Cyprus. He avowed that, “The Special Coordinator will prioritize achieving timeliness, accuracy and consistency in reporting across all levels of the Organization in 2019.”

The Secretary-General’s non-performance is accentuated by the serious deficiencies evident throughout the Report. This random sampling selected by the Code Blue Campaign, as of the morning of the Report’s release, is far from exhaustive, but indicative:

  • A single “allegation” against police actually involved 12 perpetrators and six victims

  • Information about the final outcomes of allegations is negligible. Ten of 148 allegations against UN personnel were closed and one staff member was fired for exploitation, but final actions taken on the remaining 137 are each labeled “pending.” Of 109 allegations against UN implementing partners, 15 were closed or unsubstantiated, 81 are ongoing, and 13 are simply listed in a final column as “substantiated or under review.” No explanation is offered. 

  • Two different UN civilian personnel who were accused in Mali of rape were fired after internal UN administrative investigations substantiated the rape claims made by their victims (one a minor). Neither man is named, and referrals to national authorities for bona fide criminal investigations and court proceedings are “pending.” Public, beware.

  • Not one man accused of crimes is recorded as having been prosecuted or convicted.  

  • In parts of the UN where reporting has increased, the Secretary-General “suggests” without evidence that this indicates greater trust in the system, thanks to staff training and awareness-raising campaigns that “led, inter alia” to more victims coming forward. But where decreases in levels of reporting appear, that means that prevention programs are working.  Wherever the data points, the Report’s rhetoric can spin it as an achievement. 

  • Far from game-changing, the Secretary-General’s new approaches to engaging Member States—a “Circle of Leadership” and a “Voluntary Compact”—are evaluated only by the numbers of signatories. In place of examples of the signatories’ leadership or exceptional commitment, the frequency of meetings is noted. 

  • When their military or police are accused, Troop-Contributing Countries are obliged to inform the UN of the results of the investigations conducted and the accountability measures taken. In 2018, reports on 106 allegations dating back as far as 2010 were outstanding, but no Member State was barred from peacekeeping last year for violating its contract year after year. Some non-compliant governments may have signed the zero-obligation Voluntary Compact. It’s impossible to tell, since serial UN shirkers—like serial sex offenders who are fired from their UN jobs and returned, unpunished, to the general population—are never named. 

  • The rights of victims of UN sexual abuse have yet to be codified, but the Report asserts that victims have been helped to know and exercise their rights. Constant repetition of a well-worn catch phrase is offered in lieu of any explanation of what a “victim-centered approach” entails, or how a Victims’ Rights Advocate advances it. Ms. Connors and four field-based victims’ rights advocates—officials sworn to defend the best interests of the UN—meet with victims who’ve accused the UN of grievous crimes, offering them gifts, legal services, and “counseling.” The UN seems unconcerned about that inherent conflict of interest. 

  • Ms. Connors reportedly meets with victims one-on-one “where possible,” though not in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, one of her four focus countries; for the second year in a row, she has not managed to visit the DRC. 

  • A Victims’ Trust Fund, years in development, reportedly assisted 306 beneficiaries in three countries last year. How many of the recipients of those funds were victims of sexual exploitation or abuse—by UN personnel or by anyone at all—isn’t reported. The services rendered, however, do not seem targeted to the special needs of such persons.  

  • With no supporting evidence, the Secretary-General declares in his Report that he is “driving a cultural transformation across our complex system.” At the same time, he places convenient emphasis on his lack of authority over most of the UN’s disparate entities. If he cannot persuade the entire UN system to accede to his moral authority on this issue, he cannot lay claim to a cultural transformation. 

The few points above only hint at a litany of inadequacies laid bare by the Special Measures Report. It is profoundly disheartening to imagine the time, money, and intellectual acumen wasted on producing several thousand words of no real consequence. The Code Blue Campaign remains, as ever, willing and able to offer what the UN truly deserves and desperately needs: concrete, informed proposals to solve what is now an existential UN crisis of its own making. 

(UN Photo / Eskinder Debebe)