The UN Has An Endemic Sexual Abuse Problem And It’s Time For It To Get Its Act Together

The United Nations has found itself embroiled in yet another major sex scandal, a consistent albeit undesirable track record it has maintained since the 2000s. Last week, an independent commission found that more than 80 aid workers including some employed by the World Health Organization (WHO) were involved in sexual abuse and exploitation during an Ebola crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The probe was prompted by an investigation in 2020 by the Thomson Reuters Foundation and The New Humanitarian in which more than 50 women accused aid workers from the WHO and other charities of demanding sex in exchange for jobs between 2018-2020.

According to Paula Donovan, co-director of the Code Blue Campaign, which is campaigning to end sexual exploitation by UN peacekeepers, this is “the biggest finding of sexual abuse perpetrated during a single UN initiative in one area or one country during the time-bound period of a UN response effort.” 

Sex scandals have been an ongoing concern for the UN for several years and despite many allegations been proven right, there has hardly been any meaningful action or reform taken to address or prevent such instances from repeating in the future. In the past 15 years alone, 1,700 allegations of UN sexual violence have been made – from Bosnia to Cambodia, Congo to Haiti – and these are only the ones reported and recorded.

Rightfully so, the US and other UN donor nations put pressure on WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus to act quickly on the damning report on a sexual assault scandal that has engulfed it and other aid agencies in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The countries, including Canada, voiced support for the WHO’s “immediate action to terminate the contracts of presumed perpetrators still in their employment” and for requiring others to take administrative leave pending further investigations.

While the call to take swift action is welcome news, it isn’t anywhere close to enough considering sex scandals have been an endemic problem and have remained embedded in the UN system for far too long. Given that public trust in the UN is at an all-time low, UN member states and donors ought to demand and expect full commitment and accountability from the world body to prevent and address such scandals through meaningful fundamental reforms.

The UN’s new resources for survivors may explain the rise in sexual abuse reports, including older cases. Affordable or free legal assistance has improved in some places but remains patchy. The need to better provide rape and sexual abuse survivors with long-term psychological assistance is well-established. Less clear is what the children born of rape or relationships with peacekeepers will need over the years to come and so more research is needed in this area.

Despite many reports of incidents of alleged sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers in several missions in Africa in the past decade, the perpetrators usually get away scot-free as most UN personnel enjoy functional immunity, which means they cannot be taken to court for anything they have done as part of their work. But the secretary-general has the power to waive that immunity if it “would impede the course of justice”.

It is, therefore, time for the UN to get its act together and initiate an immediate, thorough, and detailed assessment of the institutional policies, operational processes, leadership culture, and circumstances at the WHO and other UN agencies that have allowed this to happen, including for cases to go unreported to the UN’s leadership and member states.

The UN must continue to drive troop and police contributing countries to improve their efforts in training and troop vetting ahead of deployment. It’s also crucial that the UN, the media and civil society groups continue to exert pressure on these countries to respond to abuse allegations more seriously and more transparently. Otherwise, prosecutions of crimes will remain the exception. Novel approaches like the one initiated by South Africa could be replicated elsewhere, wherein the African nation holds courts-martial in the same locale as the victim, to improve access to witnesses and evidence, and to ensure that justice is served.

For decades, desperate civilians have sought UN peacekeepers to alleviate some of the worst horrors of our times. Survivors of violence, displacement and poverty shouldn’t have to fear that those charged with protecting them will contribute to their suffering. As a nation whose people value human rights, compassion and justice, Canada must not stay silent in this regard and therefore, it is only fair that the Trudeau government hold the UN accountable for its actions and demand meaningful reforms if the world body has to regain some of its lost public trust and sheen. 

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