Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 4 April 2020

Sexual abuse allegations against UN peacekeepers up in 2019

Secretary General Antonio Guterres stressed the UN’s ‘zero tolerance policy for sexual misconduct

The United Nations flag flies outside its headquarters in New York City. AFP
The United Nations flag flies outside its headquarters in New York City. AFP

Allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation in UN peacekeeping and political missions rose significantly in 2019, with allegations against civilian staff almost doubling, the international body reported on Friday.

Secretary General Antonio Guterres said in the report to the UN General Assembly that while the number of victims and perpetrators decreased last year, the number of reports increased to 80 from the 56 reported in 2018.

More than half of the 2019 allegations – 41 – were related to the UN peacekeeping mission in Central African Republic, while 15 involved the mission in Congo, the report said. The joint African Union-UN peacekeeping force in Darfur, the UN force in Lebanon, and the former peacekeeping missions in Liberia and Haiti accounted for three-fourths of the remaining 24 cases, it said.

The rest involved three special political missions – the Office of the Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Syria, the UN Verification Mission in Colombia and the UN Integrated Peacebuilding Office in Guinea-Bissau.

The UN has long been in the spotlight over allegations of child rape and other sexual abuses by its peacekeepers, especially those based in Central African Republic and Congo. But the latest figures demonstrate again that sexual misconduct spans the UN system.

The report said allegations involving UN civilian personnel rose from 13 in 2018 to 25 in 2019, while allegations involving military personnel increased from 39 in 2018 to 49 in 2019. There were 37 allegations associated with paternity claims, it said.

As for sexual exploitation and abuse involving staff working for UN agencies, funds and programs, it said 95 allegations were reported in 2019, up from 93 in 2018.

Mr Guterres stressed in the report that the majority of the more than 190,000 uniformed and civilian personnel in more than 30 organisations in the UN system serve “with professionalism and dedication,” but he said “significant challenges” remain in dealing with sexual abuse and exploitation.

“The high turnover of personnel, combined with the vulnerable environments in which the United Nations operates, requires constant vigilance to ensure that systems are in place to identify and mitigate risk, screen and train our personnel and respond in a victim-centred, timely and robust way to allegations when they are received,” the UN chief said.

Mr Guterres has made combating sexual abuse and exploitation a high priority and stressed enforcement of the UN’s “zero-tolerance” policy for sexual misconduct. He initiated a series of reforms to UN peacekeeping to speed up investigations and appointed a victims’ advocate to help victims of sexual abuse.

But Paula Donovan, co-director of Aids-Free World and its Code Blue campaign, which works to fight impunity for sexual exploitation and abuse by UN staff, said the numbers in the report demonstrate “that the UN is failing, that the Secretary General’s new approach is not succeeding.”

She told The Associated Press that “sexual exploitation, at least when tracked year after year after year, is not improving because of the special measures that have been taken”.

Ms Donovan also pointed to the report’s finding that 42 per cent of investigations completed since 2010 substantiated allegations, while 58 per cent were unsubstantiated – either for lack of evidence or the alleged perpetrator being fired for misconduct or leaving the UN.

Asked about the criticism, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said “the report is a very clear picture of the situation”.

“The Secretary General has been focused from day one on tackling the scourge of sexual abuse head-on,” he said.

But he also said: “No one, including the Secretary General, can be pleased with the fact that we still have to face these cases and he will continue to focus the work of the organisation to tackle it.”

Updated: March 14, 2020 04:26 PM

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