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Report: Sexual Harassment and Assault Flourish at U.N. Offices Worldwide

The voting results are displayed on the floor of the United Nations General Assembly in which the United States declaration of Jerusalem as Israel's capital was declared "null and void" on December 21, 2017 in New York City
GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA/AFP SPENCER PLATT

The UK Guardian published a report on Thursday alleging that “the United Nations has allowed sexual harassment and assault to flourish in its offices around the world, with accusers ignored and perpetrators free to act with impunity.”

The Guardian said that “dozens of current and former U.N. employees” working in over ten countries described a “culture of silence” concerning sexual harassment and a reporting system that stacks the deck against those who report abuse. 15 of those interviewees said they personally had experienced or reported harassment or assault within the past five years. All of them spoke anonymously, either because they feared retaliation or because U.N. rules barred them from speaking with the press.

A consultant who said she was harassed while working for the U.N. World Food Program said that reporting harassment is a career-killer, especially for consultants. Three of them said they were either forced out of jobs or threatened with termination after reporting harassment.

One woman who lost her job claimed she was raped by a senior U.N. staffer. Not only did she lose her job in spite of presenting medical evidence and corroborating testimony to back up her claims, but she said she is afraid to return to her home country because it is one of those places where the victims of sexual assault face persecution.

Among the systemic criticisms advanced by the Guardian’s interviewees are sloppy investigative procedures, poor record keeping, poor medical care for assault victims, information leaked from investigations, and a disturbing tendency to leave high U.N. officials in position while investigations are underway.

This gives the officials plenty of opportunities to use their influence to quash the investigations or offer their victims rewards for remaining silent. According to the Guardian’s sources, victims sometimes find themselves being interviewed by the official who assaulted them when they file a complaint.

Local investigations were stymied by claims of diplomatic immunity from the alleged perpetrators. Some victims are reportedly afraid to speak out because they are working abroad and fear the U.N. might cancel their visas.

“Even when you summon your courage to complain and you exhaust all the internal mechanisms like I did, all the resources, all the processes, there’s nothing for you. They mobilize friends, colleagues against you. I had threats, sent through friends, that ‘She will never set foot in this office again,’” said one of the women who spoke to the Guardian.

The Guardian makes brief references to two recent major scandals concerning sexual abuse by U.N. employees against local populations. In one case, widespread allegations of rape perpetrated by peacekeepers against women and children in the poverty-stricken, war-torn Central African Republic surfaced in 2014. According to a report by USA Today last week, “Blue-helmeted soldiers and U.N. staff still rape with impunity despite pledges by U.N. leaders to end the abuses.”

“I have realized that nothing must be expected from these white people. Now, I put everything in the hands of God,” said a woman who claimed a U.N. soldier raped her 10-year-old son last year.

Another devastating scandal surrounds the U.N. mission in Haiti, where 134 Sri Lankan peacekeepers were charged with creating a sex ring that victimized children as young as 12. Hundreds of additional allegations were uncovered in Haiti involving peacekeepers from several different countries. Very few of them were punished for their actions. Some of the starving young victims were reportedly lured into sexually abusive situations with offers of food.

As the USA Today report indicates, U.N. officials are constantly declaring massive bureaucratic solutions to sexual abuse issues and proclaiming great progress has been made, but it just keeps happening.

The Central African Republic horror show led to the installation of a “victim’s rights advocate” plus increased funding and staffing to handle abuse cases, resulting in a claimed reduction of fifty percent in sexual assaults on children by U.N. peacekeepers in 2017.

The Haitian horror did not become public knowledge until an Associated Press expose was published in April 2017 as the 14-year U.N. mission was winding down.

The Guardian article on sexual abuse at U.N. offices quotes a statement in which Secretary-General Antonio Guterres promised to appoint a “victim’s rights advocate” and establish a “high-level task force on sexual harassment.” The U.N. also promised to conduct a survey to learn how widespread harassment has become and set up a telephone helpline to advise victims.

U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Management Jan Beagle wrote a response to the Guardian piece in which he said it raised “disturbing issues that we take very seriously.” He promised that the U.N. has a “zero tolerance” policy for sexual harassment, disputed claims by the women who spoke to the Guardian that U.N. policies bar staffers from speaking to the media, and insisted that “U.N. staff accused of crimes do not enjoy diplomatic immunity.”

In November, the United Nations reported 31 allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation against both peacekeepers and civilian employees in just three months. The Secretary-General was reportedly “disappointed and saddened that these actions continue.”

As for diplomatic immunity, a Sudanese diplomat invoked it to evade charges of sexual harassment in New York just a few months ago. The invocation of diplomatic immunity by U.N. personnel to avoid sexual abuse prosecutions has been so widespread that a campaign called “Code Blue” was organized to rescind their legal impunity in 2015. Code Blue reported just last week that the United Nations remains “unwilling and unable” to provide details about its policy for referring credible complaints to local law enforcement for criminal investigations.

Code Blue also reported on leaked case files from the Central African Republic showing that ten out of 14 abuse complaints were handled exclusively by the United Nations, rather than either local investigators or those from the home countries of U.N. personnel. In eight of the 14 cases, the alleged victims were not even interviewed.

“These 14 cases demonstrate that the U.N. filters reports of complaints, usually tossing them out before the matters ever reach the competent authorities from troop-contributing countries,” charged Code Blue lawyer Sharanya Kanikkannan. “This filtering ensures that there is no access to justice for the vast majority of victims since they cannot gain access to law enforcement authorities without first convincing U.N. staff to believe them.”

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