UN probe finds no widespread refugee abuse by aid workers, but urges preventive action
Charges of extensive sexual exploitation of refugees in West Africa by aid workers and United Nations peacekeepers have not been confirmed by a thorough investigation by the UN watchdog office, which today issued concrete recommendations for preventing and handling even isolated cases of abuse.
The UN Office for Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) released its 37-page findings, which were produced in response to a consultants' report, commissioned by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Save the Children (UK), which found "widespread" sexual exploitation within the refugee communities in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
During a six-month investigation which began in February, OIOS could not substantiate any of the 12 cases in the consultants' report. Aside from those allegations, however, OIOS also looked into 43 additional cases of possible sexual exploitation and was able to substantiate 10 of them, including one involving a 44-year old UN Volunteer who had sexual relations with a 15-year old refugee, but denied paternity after she became pregnant. His contract has since been terminated. In another case, a peacekeeper serving with the UN Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) sodomized a 14-year old boy. The soldier has since been repatriated, and UNAMSIL has asked the troop-contributing country to take action against him.
Despite these cases - which UN officials stressed could not be tolerated - "none of the allegations against any regular UN staff member was substantiated, so in OIOS's view, the consultants' allegations of widespread sexual exploitation by UN aid workers and peacekeepers cannot be substantiated," OIOS chief Dileep Nair said at a press conference in New York. "Indeed we feel the consultants' report unfairly tarnished the reputation and credibility of a large majority of UN aid workers and peacekeepers who are out there in the field."
The report did confirm that conditions in the camps and in refugee communities in the region make refugees, especially young women, vulnerable to sexual and other forms of exploitation. The report offers a series of proposals for action by UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies as well as the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations. Many of those have already been implemented.
"We view the problem of sexual exploitation of refugees and displaced people with the utmost gravity," said Kenzo Oshima, the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator. "While the vast majority of humanitarian workers are dedicated to helping people in need with deep commitment and with integrity, the IASC [Inter Agency Standing Committee] position has been and remains that 'one case is too many.'"
Mr. Oshima described the IASC plan of action to combat the problem and its core principles for a code of conduct. "Among other things, the code explicitly prohibits sex with children under 18, prohibits the exchange of money, employment, goods or services for sex, calls for discipline, including dismissal, against those who violate the code of conduct, and requires staff to report suspected abuses," he explained.
"While the immediate investigation may now be largely complete with the release of the OIOS report, the work of the humanitarian community to ensure the protection of the populations we work with is an ongoing effort, one to which we are deeply committed," Mr. Oshima stressed.