Food for Sex: Sexual Coercion and Immunity at the United Nations

Published June 14th, 2018 - 11:03 GMT
School girls in northeast Nigeria. Parents fear for their lives from Boko Haram, the terror organisation involved in mass kidnapping of pupils and teachers, 22 May , 2018 (AFP File Photo)
School girls in northeast Nigeria. Parents fear for their lives from Boko Haram, the terror organisation involved in mass kidnapping of pupils and teachers, 22 May , 2018 (AFP File Photo)

By Eleanor Beevor

It’s been a bad year for the reputation of international aid. In the wake of the “Me Too” movement, no field was spared from uncomfortable reckonings with how some among their powerful were getting away with sexual abuse and harassment. That period of reckoning was replete with shocks. But it was particularly appalling in the humanitarian world.

Sex in Exchange for Food

In early 2018, stories broke that some humanitarian aid workers, including from major organizations such as Oxfam and the United Nations, had demanded sex in exchange for aid, or had hired prostitutes. Many of these incidents were outright cases of sexual coercion.

But even in the more ambiguous instances of prostitution, the power relations involved were clearly troubling. Whether it is a sex worker’s choice to work for wealthy expatriates or not, in the midst of natural disaster, conflict or extreme poverty, their limited set of choices to earn money may be tantamount to no choice at all.

AFP

Yet for all the shock, 2018 was hardly the first time we have heard such stories. And the UN in particular has a history of troubling cases of its staff sexually exploiting those they are supposed to be helping.

It’s perfectly true that this problem exists across all international aid agencies. Some studies suggest that paedophiles actually target jobs in the humanitarian sector, so as to be able to prey on underage children with greater ease than they would at home. Meanwhile, the majority of aid workers in the UN and elsewhere are no doubt innocent of these crimes.

Movie focuses on problem

However, the recurring pattern of abuse in the UN points to some serious flaws in the institution, and in its ability to handle this problem. Some cases were so notorious they were made into movies.

The 2010 film “The Whistleblower”, starring Rachel Weisz, was based on the story of Kathryn Bolkovac, a police officer taken on by the security contractor DynCorp as part of a mission to police UN peacekeepers in Bosnia. In the course of the mission, Bolkovac discovered that both peacekeepers and DynCorp employees were involved in trafficking and sexually exploiting young women. Bolkovac was fired when she tried to press the issue.

From The Whistleblower with star actor Rachel Weisz (Twitter)

In the two years following the Bosnian case, a team of researchers documented further allegations of UN employees who were effectively trading aid for sex in West African refugee camps. The team interviewed about 1,500 people in camps in Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Large numbers of the respondents reported that having to have sex with an aid worker in order to get food, building materials or education was commonplace. Corn soya blend, a food staple in the refugee camps, was reportedly traded as “a kilo for sex”. The research team documented sexual abuse allegations against 67 individuals, although they feared that the problem was more widespread.

World reports now recognize aid workers regularly trade aid for sex in Africa. AFP/Getty Images

The report was given to the managers of the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in 2002, and some details were leaked to the media.

However, senior managers, including the then head of UNHRC Ruund Lubbers, were largely dismissive of the findings. Lubbers then asked the UN’s Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) to conduct a separate inquiry. Instead of refuting the earlier findings, OIOS found a further 43 cases of abuse.

Food for Sex Resurfaced

This “food for sex” scandal resurfaced this year, at the same time as devastating revelations were made about Oxfam employees using prostitutes whilst working in Haiti after the devastating earthquake of 2010. But there are several much more recent sex abuse scandals involving UN personnel, and along with them came further “mishandling” of the cases.

In 2016, horrific allegations emerged of French forces sexually abusing minors while acting as peacekeepers in the Central African Republic. The peacekeepers reportedly tied up four girls and forced them to perform sex acts with animals. The UN spokesman confirmed that 108 complaints had been recorded against the peacekeepers in Central African Republic, and that the vast majority of these complaints came from minors.

French Peacekeepers in Central African Republic accused of Child Rape (AFP/ File Photo)

In 2017, the advocacy group Code Blue, an NGO which campaigns against sexual abuse by peacekeepers, announced that they had found a further 14 reports of UN fact-finding efforts around sexual abuse claims in the Central African Republic.

However, Code Blue said that the reports showed that the UN “filtered” the cases it would investigate at a very early stage. Ten of these 14 cases were handled exclusively by the UN, leaving potential victims in the position of having to convince UN personnel to prosecute their fellows.

 “Zero Tolerance” Policy 

In all these cases, senior UN officials have repeated that the organisation has a “zero tolerance” policy on sexual abuse by its staff. But that line has been ringing very hollow for a long time. For as of February 2018, the UN had not prosecuted a single person who was investigated for sex crimes against children by the UN. The Code Blue Campaign told Al Bawaba:

“The UN says it has a "zero tolerance" policy for sexual abuse, but what it really means is that perpetrators might be fired from their jobs, not that they’ll be held to account for their crimes.”

The Co-Director of Code Blue Paula Donovan continued:

“It is important to understand that even if the UN were to fully implement its zero tolerance policy, it would not result in an end to impunity. While the zero tolerance policy could reduce the chances that the Organization is complicit in hiring and deploying abusers, by ensuring that credibly accused perpetrators are removed from service, it does not advocate for zero tolerance of impunity from criminal prosecution.”

(Twitter)

But this lack of prosecutions exists largely because of the extraordinary degree of legal protection that UN staff receive. UN peacekeepers, the troops that are provided by member states to uphold peacekeeping mandates, cannot face justice in the country that they operate in. They can be prosecuted for crimes they commit on duty in their home country, although such prosecutions are exceedingly rare.

Meanwhile, UN civil staff have legal immunity in all countries in the world, including their own. And according to the UN Secretary General Antonio Gutteres, the UN’s data suggests that the majority of offences are actually committed by civilian, not peacekeeping staff. This suggests that the problem is far more widespread than we know about.

Professor Andrew MacLeod, a former UN official and the founder of the NGO “Hear Their Cries”, which campaigns against sexual abuse in the UN, told Al Bawaba:

“The UN, although nominally transparent around the abuses of peacekeepers, has for years been silent around abuses by civilian staff. It was only this year that UN Secretary General Antonia Gutteres finally made it clear that the UN would not assert immunity from prosecution on sexual cases. The belief that many had held, that UN staff are immune from prosecution, was an erroneous belief that prevented prosecution. In addition, there is a palpable fear inside the UN that if the true size and scale of abuse became known to the public, then the UN would lose its funding.”

Gutteres says will not extend immunity from prosecution from now on (AFP)

However, the public surely now know enough. If the UN is serious about wanting to regain public trust, it is going to have to take significant steps to combat this problem.

Gutteres’s assertion that the UN will not extend immunity from prosecution for sexual abusers is an encouraging step. Another key development is the appointment of a representative for the victims. Dr Rosa Freedman, Professor of Law, Conflict and Global Development at the University of Reading and an expert in United Nations conduct, told Al Bawaba:

“The vast majority of UN civilian and uniformed personnel undertake their work with professionalism and courage. A small minority perpetrate sexual exploitation or abuse, but they cast a dark shadow over the Organisation. The UN has taken steps in recent years to tackle sexual exploitation and abuse, and to implement organisational accountability. Key to those efforts is the appointment of Jane Connors as Victims’ Rights Advocate. What we need are robust, evidence-based solutions for the international arena that will address these problems.”

The UN has always had trouble asserting its will. But in cases of sexual abuse, it cannot afford to make only empty statements. It has a troubling history of turning a blind eye to horrifying acts committed by its own people.

Though it is far from the only institution with a sexual abuse problem, the organisation exists because it is meant to represent something better. And it is only right to expect its staff, and its enforcers, to be better as well.

 

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