Africa: Guterres Reveals Strategy to Address Sexual Exploitation by UN Peacekeepers

United Nations Secretary General António Guterres released a report on February 28 detailing his strategy to prevent and respond to sexual exploitation and abuse perpetrated by UN peacekeepers against vulnerable communities. See UN Secretary General, Special measures for protection from sexual exploitation and abuse: a new approach, UN Doc. A/71/818, 28 February 2017. The report comes less than three months after Guterres’ remarks to the UN General Assembly prior to taking the oath of office, during which he announced his intention to address such crimes. His strategy identifies four primary areas of action: prioritizing victims, ending impunity, engaging civil society and other partners, and improving strategic communications to aid in education and transparency. See id. at para. 13. The report also identifies best practices for Member States, discusses previous initiatives on the matter, and provides data regarding the nature of these allegations and the state of their investigations in 2016. See id. at Annexes, II, III, IV. In recent years, the United Nations has been plagued with allegations that UN peacekeepers have sexually abused women and children in multiple countries, where they have been stationed to assist disadvantaged communities. [IJRC: Recommendations; Bloomberg; CNN] Moreover, the United Nations has been accused of mishandling those allegations and failing to hold perpetrators accountable for their crimes. See Marie Deschamps et al., Taking Action on Sexual Exploitation and Abuse by Peacekeepers (2015). The former Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also announced recommendations to address this issue in March 2016, but the new action items are broader in scope. [IJRC: Recommendations]

UN Secretary General Report

Underlying Causes

According to the report, sexual exploitation occurs as a result of inequality between genders and can threaten women and girls “wherever they live or work.” See Special measures for protection from sexual exploitation and abuse: a new approach, para. 9. Sexual exploitation occurs more frequently during humanitarian missions due to local populations’ heightened levels of vulnerability. See id. at para. 11. When people are “hungry, displaced, desperate and under extreme duress,” peacekeepers are in a unique position of power. See id. Effectively combatting the issue, therefore, requires the elimination of circumstances that create vulnerability, the report argues, by promoting gender equality and empowering women. See id. at para. 10. The problem is also attributable in part to improper screening of civilians before they are hired by the UN, a lack of adequate training and discipline for all personnel, a sense of impunity among perpetrators, and a lack of “sustained efforts” by senior UN officials “until provoked by crisis.” See id. at para. 12.

Action Areas

The Secretary General’s first priority is bringing the rights and dignity of victims to the forefront. See id. at para 20. This involves giving victims a platform to make their voices heard and restoring personal connections, as well as taking action to reduce the risk of sexual abuse in the future. See Special measures for protection from sexual exploitation and abuse: a new approach, paras. 21–22. To that end, Guterres has requested that the leadership of all field operations personally engage with victims and local communities to assess risks and implement measures to combat sexual abuse. See id. at para. 23. In order to ensure victims’ adequate protection and access to justice, Guterres plans to appoint a human rights expert to serve as a victims’ rights advocate, working in conjunction with government entities, civil society, and human rights organizations to seek remedies for victims. See id. at para. 27. Funding for UN operations that pose a high risk of sexual exploitation may be made contingent upon compliance with certain prevention measures, such as training for all personnel. See id. at para. 36. Member States are encouraged to develop mechanisms to receive claims, offer financial assistance to victims, and aid in the establishment of a system-wide information sharing mechanism regarding sexual abuse cases. See id. at paras. 34–35, 38.
The second prong of the strategy involves ending impunity by enhancing reporting requirements and more thoroughly investigating and following up on claims of abuse. See id. at para. 39. Reporting will be standardized, comprehensive, and completed more quickly. See Special measures for protection from sexual exploitation and abuse: a new approach, para. 40. UN coordinators will also improve outreach to local communities and work to strengthen local complaint mechanisms. See id. at para. 42. To increase accountability, unannounced visits to field operations will be conducted and leaders will annually certify that credible allegations of sexual abuse have been fully and appropriately addressed. See id. at paras. 49–50. Member States are asked to enter into a “voluntary compact” with the Secretary General to declare their commitment to confronting this issue. See id. at para. 57. Guterres acknowledges that the sense of impunity extends beyond the United Nations to its sanctioned partners and requests assistance from the UN Security Council and regional leadership to prevent sexual exploitation by these entities and ensure their accountability as well. See id. at paras. 60–63.

The report concludes with a series of recommendations to the UN General Assembly in which the Secretary General requests the assembly’s endorsement of the new policies and enforcement mechanisms to be undertaken, as described in Guterres’ action plan. See id. at para. 79. In particular, Guterres seeks the General Assembly’s support in the establishment of a comprehensive repository of case information, strengthening investigative capabilities across the United Nations, and allocating funds to incentivize accurate reporting and assist victims. See id.

Context

In March 2016, in response to those allegations, Ban Ki-moon (Secretary General at the time) presented recommendations to the UN Security Council on ways to increase UN accountability. [IJRC: Recommendations] Less than a month prior, Ban made recommendations to the General Assembly in a report concerning allegations of sexual misconduct by UN peacekeepers in 2015 and corresponding response measures. [IJRC: Recommendations] In December 2016, as part of his goal to ensure global peace, then-Secretary-General-designate António Guterres vowed to address this issue further upon taking office. See United Nations, Secretary-General-designate António Guterres’ remarks to the General Assembly on taking the oath of office. [IJRC: Guterres] The strategy presented in this report is a robust and tangible effort toward Guterres’ stated aim of preventing and responding to “the appalling crimes of sexual violence and exploitation committed under the UN flag against those we are supposed to protect.” See United Nations, Secretary-General-designate António Guterres’ remarks to the General Assembly on taking the oath of office.

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