Photo credit: UN Women - Photo: 2018

UN at Pains to Weed Out Sexual Exploitation and Abuse

By Santo D. Banerjee

NEW YORK (IDN) – At a critical moment when allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse from within the United Nations are mounting, and a leaked UN staff survey shows fears over whistleblowing and ethical accountability, Secretary-General António Guterres has in his message for International Women’s Day on March 8, called for the UN setting “an example for the world,” adding: “I recognize that this has not always been the case.”

Guterres continues: “Since the start of my tenure last year, I have set change in motion at United Nations Headquarters, in our peacekeeping missions and in all our offices worldwide. We have now reached gender parity for the first time in my senior management team, and I am determined to achieve this throughout the Organization.”

The Secretary-General assures that he is totally committed to zero tolerance of sexual harassment and has set out plans to improve reporting and accountability. Besides, the UN has launched a 24-hour helpline to enable staff to shout out sexual harassment in the workplace.

In email sent to staff members on February 26, Guterres writes: “The helpline is a 24-hour resource for UN Secretariat personnel to speak confidentially with an impartial and trained individual who can provide information on protection, support and reporting mechanisms.”

Besides, the UN is “working closely with countries around the world to prevent and address sexual exploitation and abuse by staff in peacekeeping missions, and to support victims.”

UN Spokesman Stéphane Dujarric announced on February 22 that the Organization had received 40 allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse across its entities and implementing partners for the last three months of 2017, including 15 reported from peacekeeping operations.

“Not all allegations have been fully verified, and many are in the preliminary assessment phase,” Dujarric told reporters at the regular briefing at UN Headquarters in New York. The remaining 25 allegations were reported by UN agencies, funds and programmes, and include eight allegations relating to implementing partners.

“Of the 40 allegations, 13 are categorized as sexual abuse, 24 as sexual exploitation, and three are of an unknown nature,” the UN Spokesman said. The allegations involve 54 victims; 30 are women and 16 are girls under the age of 18, and the ages of 8 others are unknown.

Twelve of the 40 allegations occurred in 2017, seven in 2016, three in or before 2015, and the dates are unknown for 18 of them, he said.

Two allegations have been substantiated by an investigation; three were not substantiated; 15 are at various stages of investigation; 18 are under preliminary assessment; two are under review with limited information provided to the investigating entity, Dujarric said.

“With over 95,000 civilians and 90,000 uniformed personnel working for the UN, sexual exploitation and abuse are not reflective of the conduct of the majority of the dedicated women and men who serve the Organization,” he said, emphasizing however that “every allegation involving our personnel undermines our values and principles and the sacrifice of those who serve with pride and professionalism in some of the most dangerous places in the world.”

For this reason, Dujarric stressed, combating this scourge, and helping and empowering those who have been scarred by these egregious acts, continue to be key priorities for the UN Secretary-General.

However, according to an internal survey conducted in December 2017, a copy of which Devex obtained, one-third of UN staff workers see “a lack of performance and ethical accountability” within the institution and are afraid to report misconduct due to fears of retaliation. Male and female staff also expressed starkly different perceptions of gender equality and empowerment within the UN

The Devex report by Sophie Edwards on March 1 says the survey was completed by 39 percent of staff. While it shows high levels of satisfaction among staff in some aspects – including in relation to gender and diversity, engagement, and alignment – one-quarter of staff reported they “do not feel comfortable challenging the status quo” and they pointed out “a lack of performance and ethical accountability.”

This lack of trust is significant, as it comes despite Secretary-General Guterres’ efforts to reform the institution’s internal processes, including whistleblower protection, says Edwards.

But she takes note of the fact that within months of taking office on January 2017, Guterres launched a new strategy to transform the way the UN works to prevent and respond to sexual exploitation and abuse among staff. This was followed by an announcement about reforms designed to strengthen the UN’s whistleblowing policy to ensure people who come forward to report misconduct are protected from retaliation. [IDN-InDepthNews – 05 March 2018]

Photo credit: UN Women

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –

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