A new United Nations report on sexual exploitation and abuse at the UN, along with its high profile media launch, may signal “a new approach” by the organization. It also reflects the seriousness with which the new secretary-general, António Guterres, views the matter, which has plagued the UN for years. Guterres, still in his 100 first days, released the latest annual report to the General Assembly on March 9, and it will be considered at the peacekeeping session of its Administrative and Budgetary Committee (Fifth Committee) in May.

In the past few years, despite the personal commitment of its leadership, the UN has experienced serious setbacks in the fight against this long-standing scourge, which has become endemic in UN peacekeeping and in other parts of the UN, and risks seriously undermining the reputation of the organization. In the spring of 2015, media reports emerged that the UN had allegations of sexual abuse in 2014 of young children in the Central African Republic (CAR) by members of the French military force taking part in Operation Sangaris, which operated under UN Security Council authorization. This served as a tipping point in the public debate. In June 2015, confronted with the uproar that followed the media reports, the former secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, appointed an independent review panel. The “CAR panel” eventually produced a damning report qualifying the UN response as “fragmented, bureaucratic and failing,” and calling for “deliberate, effective and immediate action” to address the matter. The report is mandatory reading to understand the weaknesses of the UN response to sexual exploitation and abuse.

Against this backdrop, the sense of priority that Guterres injected into his initiative, the tone and the contents of his report, together with its high-profile launch with the media, all signal a renewed determination to step up UN efforts.

First of all, it is remarkable that one of the first initiatives Guterres took during his first week on the job in January was the appointment of a high-level task force “to develop as a matter of urgency, a clear, game-changing strategy to achieve visible and measurable further improvement in the Organisation’s approach to preventing and responding to sexual exploitation and abuse.” The ambition of the secretary-general was to use the elements of the new strategy that would be generated by the task force to feed the annual report, and make a forceful statement that the UN cannot afford to treat this as a business-as-usual exercise. 

The shift in the tone of the report is striking too. The purported groundbreaking nature of the latest annual report is proclaimed in its title, which announces “a new approach” for the UN. The report has a familiar mix of somber statistics from the past, and of engagement for change going forward. Once again, the secretary-general starts his narrative with the appalling account of the magnitude of the problem of sexual exploitation and abuse. He refers to the dramatic increase of allegations according to data collected system-wide (from 99 in 2015 to 145 in 2016 in the UN system as a whole), and compounds this with the categorical assertion – rather uncommon from his official standpoint – of what is otherwise obvious to any observer: that he feels “certain that not all cases are reported.” More bleak data fill the pages of the annexes, including on the nationalities of the alleged perpetrators as it has become the norm since 2016. But when the report starts looking forward, it becomes far more positive. After the emphatic assertion that “we can dramatically improve how the United Nations addresses this problem,” the secretary-general embarks on an inspired description of actions and recommendations. He states his intention to call a high-level meeting in September, on the margins of the general debate of the General Assembly, “to solemnize our commitments and collective pledge to increased accountability.”

When one looks closely at the contents of the report, not many of the initiatives presented in it can actually be considered totally new, and some of them seem relatively well rehearsed. This isn’t a surprise, considering the UN has been known to be struggling to come to grips with this problem for over 15 years, since the first reported incidents in West Africa in 2001. The initiatives on which the report’s strategy focuses fall under four traditional areas of action: putting victims first; ending impunity; engaging civil society and external partners; and improving strategic communications for education and transparency. In the search for more effective actions to stamp out the scourge of sexual exploitation and abuse, the strategy seems to be rather reorienting the UN approach than reinventing it. On the victims’ side, for example, the report proposes some helpful adjustments to the Trust Fund in Support of Victims, which the UN established in 2016. Also, the call to Member States to set up mechanisms to receive claims from victims is not unprecedented, though the casual reference in the report to the (frankly unlikely) possibility of using ex gratia payments to victims from the UN budget in exceptional cases is pretty unconventional.

Like his predecessors, Guterres recognizes that ultimately the cooperation of all relevant actors is needed, and that the key to ending impunity mostly falls in the hands of Member States. He therefore renews the call to Member States to extend extraterritorial jurisdiction over crimes committed by their nationals assigned to the UN or operating under its authority. Along these lines, the report presents the ambitious proposal to create a voluntary compact between the Secretary-General and Member States on all aspects of the , including on accountability. The compact would be “an unprecedented signal to the world of our joint commitment and mutual accountability on this issue,” and the proposed 2017 high-level meeting could help bring this initiative forward.

It is certainly worth testing whether raising the inter-governmental dialogue to the highest level will press Member States to undertake a more genuine commitment to ending impunity. Sexual exploitation and abuse has become one of the most politically charged subjects at the UN. It is outrageous that this topic, which should unite all UN members in a common front beyond their geopolitical and ideological affiliations, has turned intensely divisive in the UN inter-governmental arena. Many troop- and police-contributing countries felt that the recent enhanced transparency about the alleged perpetrators was a “naming and shaming” ploy against them. This in turn created an unhealthy climate, which risked damaging the traditional “compact” between troop- and police-contributors and financial contributors, on which UN peacekeeping mission is ultimately founded.

Certainly, in the end Member States always overcome their divisions and unite in condemnation of sexual exploitation and abuse. In 2015 and 2016, the Fifth Committee (the main committee of the General Assembly entrusted with the administrative and budgetary questions of the UN), and the Security Council successfully agreed to important resolutions, which dealt with some key aspects of sexual abuse and exploitation. Then, on March 10, just one day after the release of the secretary-general’s report, the General Assembly hastily adopted a rather anodyne resolution, its first plenary resolution on this subject. The policy of “zero tolerance” that all these resolutions advocate, however, is bound to remain empty rhetoric if more effective measures are not undertaken. Therefore, it is right for the secretary-general to mobilize Member States at the highest level, and his request to the Legal Counsel of the UN to explore ways to press Member States to exercise criminal jurisdiction for both uniformed and civilian personnel is a welcome step in the right direction. Ensuring criminal accountability is an integral part of the international community’s proclaimed zero-tolerance policy. The military personnel of Member States’ peacekeeping forces, in particular, who are immune from the jurisdiction of the host country and subject to the contributing States’ exclusive jurisdiction by virtue of the applicable Memoranda of Understanding, must not operate in an area of impunity. In spite of countless reports, studies and proposals to close this gap, such as the longstanding option of an international convention in connection with crimes committed in peacekeeping operations, a proper legal framework has not yet been created to address this issue effectively, and even in this latest report the matter is not sufficiently developed.

Of course, when the secretary-general makes the powerful statement that “united in common purpose the Organization and the Member States can be an unstoppable force for positive change,” he recognizes that the UN too, for its part, has its own serious shortcomings, and must uphold its responsibilities. As the CAR Panel pointed out in its report, a cultural shift is required both for troop-contributing countries and for the UN. One of the panel’s shocking findings, for example, was that in the eyes of many UN staff, the human rights framework does not apply to allegations of sexual violence by peacekeepers. Guterres deserves credit for declaring that he wants to make the UN “an example of best practice and global leadership” and for his commitment to the program he outlines in the report. Yet, as is widely recognized, the UN still has a long way to go to put its house in order, and one can only hope that Guterres’s positive agenda and the long list of initiatives outlined in this new report do not get bogged down in a futile bureaucratic exercise, and that the “new approach” proclaimed in the report’s title will produce real change “for the greater good of those [the UN] serve[s]”.

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not reflect those of the European External Action Service.

Image: Francesco Presutti