UN hosts meeting aimed at tackling problems of sexual abuse by field personnel
Almost 150 different agencies and country representatives, including diplomats and other officials, gathered at UN Headquarters in New York for the event.
Paying tribute to the vast majority of upstanding personnel who serve under difficult conditions, the Secretary-General called it “tragic and intolerable that those contributions are undermined by the small number of individuals among them who have engaged in acts of sexual exploitation and abuse.”
He decried the damage caused by these acts, including “great harm to women and children who already face extreme hardship and violations in their daily lives,” and condemned sexual exploitation and abuse as “utterly immoral, and completely at odds with our mission.”
Three years ago, the Secretary-General instituted special measures spelling out prohibited sexual conduct applied to all UN staff, as well as uniformed personnel. In his remarks to the conference, he said those steps had been effective.
“Today, our personnel are better informed about what is expected of them. Allegations of exploitation and abuse are being handled in a more systematic and professional manner. Staff who commit such acts are being fired. And uniformed peacekeeping personnel are being sent home and barred from future peacekeeping service, and also in the expectation that their own governments will deal with them.”
At the same time, he acknowledged the need for more action. “My message of zero tolerance has still not got through to all those who need to hear it – from managers and commanders on the ground, to all our other personnel.”
In response, Mr. Annan called for fostering “an environment in which people feel able to report abuses without fear of retaliation” and said he has drafted a policy statement and comprehensive strategy on assistance to victims of sexual exploitation and abuse by UN personnel. “I look forward to the discussions that the Member States will have on the proposal later this month,” he said.
Declaring that “no one in the UN is above the law,” he said a new report includes proposals for a binding treaty on the matter.
Mr. Annan, who completes his decade-long service at the helm of the UN at the end of this year, predicted continued focus on the problem. “I am sure that my successor will take this issue every bit as seriously, and will, therefore, find the work of this conference very useful,” he said.
The Secretary-General’s Adviser on Sexual Exploitation and Abuse by UN Peacekeeping Personnel, Prince Zeid Ra’ad Zeid Al-Hussein of Jordan, agreed on the importance of the conference “to develop a common understanding and appreciation of the diagnosis and the remedies to be decided upon.”
He stressed the need to understand that only host countries or the national States of individuals suspected of abuse could exercise authority. “When you look at UN peacekeeping missions or other humanitarian presences the situation is made worse when you don’t have a complete judicial system in place in those particular countries.”
He also emphasized that more progress is needed in legislating against sexual exploitation and abuse. Efforts were under way to draft memoranda of understanding to be signed by the UN and contributing countries outlining what each could expect of the other, he said.
Another document, on assistance to victims, “is groundbreaking in many areas,” the Prince said. “There was some discussion within the Secretariat about DNA sampling which I personally believe is absolutely appropriate,” he said, “the idea being that anyone who serves in the field provides a sample of their DNA and on completion of duty that sample is returned to them. It makes investigations easier and it is a considerable deterrent.”
Negotiations will be held next year to examine a possible treaty. “The idea here is that you will always have some jurisdiction covering the actions of a UN peacekeeper.”
Prince Zeid voiced hope that “once we have this comprehensive strategy in place, the culture will follow.”
Speaking at a press briefing held in conjunction with the conference, Jasmine Whitbread, the Chief Executive of Save the Children, welcomed what she termed “leadership and commitment at the highest UN levels” to address the problem across the UN system.
UN Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Jane Holl Lute stressed that there are nearly 100,000 peacekeepers in the field and because of the high turnover rates, the UN effectively manages about twice that number each year. “The vast majority of them serve honourably with pride and purpose,” she said. “It is in their honour that we are pursuing this agenda so vigorously to root out even a single instance of this behaviour where it occurs.”
Meanwhile in Liberia, the Government, together with national and international partners, today launched a campaign to combat sexual exploitation and abuse, the UN mission there (UNMIL) announced.
“Zero tolerance is the norm,” the Secretary-General’s Special Representative, Alan Doss, told a ceremony attending also by Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.
“We have a duty of care as UN staff to help the people of Liberia and not contribute to the trauma they have suffered; this is why we must be part of the solution and not a cause of the problem.”