When I joined the United Nations (UN) as a human rights specialist, decades ago, I was elated that I might contribute to the ideals of the UN Charter ; a global agreement designed to improve human dignity through peace and equality. Now, as I consider the UN’s new Secretary-General António Guterres, my thoughts are occupied by all the broken promises and people silenced trying to report abuse.
The newest Secretary-General has promised he will focus attention on ending human suffering. If abating suffering is to be his emphasis, Guterres must tackle an entrenched culture of impunity for, largely, male employees who cause harm. As the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) details, “patriarchal and unwritten rules perpetuate a culture within the UN system of colonialism, racism, sexism, and ageism”. Too many for too long have been silent about the pervasive misogyny, where employees who attempt to protect people abused by staff are silenced and female employees themselves are, all too often, abused.
In 2016, Anders Kompass resigned from the UN citing a culture of “complete impunity” and “lack of accountability”. Recently, prosecutors announced they will not charge six French peacekeepers accused of sexually abusing children in Central African Republic (CAR) in 2013 and 2014. An independent report on these crimes, released in December 2015, detailed “gross institutional failure” explaining how allegations of abuse were “passed from desk to desk, inbox to inbox, across multiple UN offices, with no one willing to take responsibility”.
While the reports of peacekeepers raping children may shock many, I wish I could say I was surprised. UN employees engaged in sexual abuse have made headlines for decades. Yet another resignation in protest. Yet another report “Taking Action on Sexual Exploitation and Abuse by Peacekeepers.” Yet another taskforce, but very little, if any, action will be taken. Again.
There are many more examples. These, listed here, are only a select few.
In 1987, Jos Verbeck, head of UNICEF Belgium, and another employee Michel Felu, were arrested for producing child pornography, distributed throughout Europe, from the basement of the UNICEF office.
UNHCR and Save the Children staff, in 2002, in the Mano River region of Africa, were sexually abusing refugee children they were meant to protect. An independent report, published by both organisations,found evidence of “extensive” sexual exploitation of refugee children in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone perpetrated by the NGO and UN employees.
In 2002, the Christian Science Monitor reported “international peace and aid workers are customers of a thriving sex trade” in the post-war Balkans. Madeleine Rees, then a UN representative—later forced out for her outspokenness on this issue—told the Monitor, “the majority of men using these women were internationals. They were really the only ones with money.”
In Chad, 2004, when I was UNHCR’s first gender expert at the early onset of an emergency, there was a food-for-sex scandal . A senior official ordered me to stay silent. I did not. When I published, in the New York Times , a very sanitised description of the sexual abuse female refugees endure, UNHCR’s senior management was not pleased.
Former UNHCR High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers resigned in 2005 after an internal investigation unit, the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services, charged him with engaging in a “pattern of sexual harassment” against female employees. Lubbers had said the complaints of sexual harassment against him could not be substantiated.
When I was UNHCR’s gender adviser in the Balkans, in 2005, a senior administrator from Pakistan was arrested on child sex abuse charges. I discussed this in a training session and was told by UNHCR staff I should not discuss the case. My response was to talk about the situation all the more. This did not endear me to some colleagues.
During my work for UNICEF, in 2006, creating programmes based on recommendations in Sarah Murison’s report, “Gender Parity in Senior Management at UNICEF,” the work I, and others, did never saw the light of day. Murison’s report detailed a “hostile” working environment endured by UNICEF’s female staff and “generally weak accountability mechanisms in this as in other areas”.
In 2017, Megan Nobert, speaking of her own abuse and those of people responding to her campaign, Report The Abuse, cites “a culture of impunity…when it comes to sexual violence against the employees of those agencies who are supposed to be protecting and helping affected populations”.
How can the UN end suffering of vulnerable populations when female employees navigate hostile environments just by showing up for work, let alone when they attempt to raise issues of sexual abuse and exploitation by UN staff?
When I joined the United Nations I believed, passionately, in the preamble of UN Charter. Today, twenty years later, despite all the abuse and all broken promises it is still these ideals that motivate me; “the peoples of the United Nations…reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women…” Does our new Secretary-General have the political will to transform the UN into an organisation that holds every employee accountable to fundamental and equal rights of men and women? Can he eliminate the entrenched culture of impunity for staff who cause suffering?
Mr Guterres, after twenty years in the UN system I do understand human suffering that is often unimaginable. Too much of the anguish I have witnessed has been perpetrated by UN employees, almost always men, who have enjoyed a lack of accountability for too long. A commitment to ending suffering as our newest Secretary-General is a fine one to make. Let that begin within the United Nations system itself.
Dr Lori Handrahan has worked for the United Nations, on and off, for the past 20 years. Her Ph.D. is from the London School of Economics. Her full bio and contact information is located on her website www.LoriHandrahan.com