Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has invited world leaders to a special event Monday on preventing sexual exploitation and abuse – an issue that has left a black mark on the U.N.’s far-flung peacekeeping operations and persists despite U.N. vows to combat the scourge.
Guterres told reporters this week that the United Nations has drafted a compact which he hopes the organization’s 193 member states will sign. According to the U.N. it emphasizes “the shared principles” of the U.N. and member states for conducting peace operations including commitments to prevent sexual exploitation.
The U.N. chief said he is also creating a “Circle of Leadership” comprising heads of state and government who make commitments to end impunity for alleged perpetrators and to strengthen measures to prevent sexual exploitations and abuse in international deployments. The leaders joining the circle will be announced on Monday, and a U.N. official said there are about 50.
In March, Guterres announced new measures to tackle the increase in sexual abuse and exploitation by U.N. peacekeepers and staff, including a new focus on victims and bans on alcohol and fraternization for troops. He cautioned then that “no magic wand exists to end the problem” but said, “I believe that we can dramatically improve how the United Nations addresses this scourge.”
The Associated Press launched an investigative series in March on the U.N’s peacekeeping crisis, uncovering roughly 2,000 allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation during a 12-year period. One of the grimmest cases detailed how a group of Sri Lankan peacekeepers ran a child sex ring in Haiti between 2004 and 2007. Despite a U.N. investigation, no Sri Lankan peacekeeper was ever prosecuted.
U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley cited the AP’s investigation in the U.N. Security Council meeting in April, warning that the United States could withdraw funding for missions where such abuses were rife and for countries that failed to hold perpetrators to account.
Earlier this week, a watchdog group said it obtained leaked case files showing “egregious mishandling” of sexual misconduct allegations by the U.N. against peacekeepers in Central African Republic, where the U.N. peacekeeping mission had the highest number of misconduct allegations in the world last year.
The 14 cases cited by the Code Blue campaign were investigated last year to determine whether the allegations could be substantiated. But the group said in eight cases, the alleged victims were not interviewed, and 10 cases did not appear on the U.N. website where data is supposed to be released about sexual misconduct cases.
U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Thursday, “We are looking into the allegations made by Code Blue.”
Jane Holl Lute, the special coordinator on improving the U.N. response to sexual exploitation and abuse, said the secretary-general believes it will be impossible to focus the U.N. on its mandate of preventing conflict and combatting poverty if it is still tied up with allegations of sexual abuses and is failing to respond effectively.
According to Lute, Guterres said, “I’m going to pursue this agenda because it is a black mark not only on our history but on ourselves and it’s a real impediment to the effectiveness of this organization’s operations.”
She told reporters this week that the secretary-general has a four-part program – to put victims “at the center,” to end impunity for alleged perpetrators, to engage with civil society, and to increase education and transparency, which is being driven partly by the realization “that this is an ever-present danger for women everywhere.”
“In fact, there’s no place women are safe,” Lute said. “There is no country, there is no military that is immune from these behaviors. This is not a problem exclusive to uniformed personnel, nor is it exclusive to peacekeeping. (…) And civilians, frankly, are more guilty of this than are uniformed military personnel, by percentage.”
At Monday’s meeting, Lute said the agenda is focused on the response to sexual abuse and exploitation by the U.N. and the international community. She said the first U.N. rights advocate for victims appointed by Guterres, Australian lawyer and human rights advocate Jane Connors, will be introduced. She said contributors to a fund for victims will be recognized.
Lute said the number of reported cases of sexual abuse by U.N. peacekeepers might increase this year, because more people understand “this is an environment that they can trust to come forward and report.”
Asked how much the U.N.’s credibility has been damaged by the sex abuse scandals in U.N. peacekeeping, Lute said, “from my point of view, you’ll never hear a story about U.N. and U.N. peacekeeping without someone referring to this black mark on our record.”
“Even though we may really turn the tide, which is what we’re trying to do … we will never be able to erase the history books,” she said.