How Can the UN Enhance its Prevention of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse?

UN Secretary-General António Guterres (second from right) delivers his remarks at the high-level meeting on the Prevention of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse last September. Also pictured is Jane Connors, Victims' Rights Advocate (far left). (UN Photo/Evan Schneider)

Last month, the United Nations confirmed that 54 allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse had been made against UN personnel operating in peacekeeping missions in the first quarter of 2018. Given that allegations have been reported each year since 2002, it is clear that sexual violence presents a threat to the legitimacy of UN missions that operate under a mandate to protect civilians in dangerous and conflict-ridden areas. Since the release of then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s 2003 Bulletin, secretaries-general Ban Ki-moon and Antonio Guterres have vehemently expressed their intentions to prevent future misconduct, and have strengthened measures for data collection and support of victims. What remains a challenge is holding the perpetrators of sexual exploitation and abuse accountable for their misconduct.

A major obstacle is a culture of impunity and gender inequality. Victims of exploitation or abuse fear retribution for speaking out, and cultural stigmas related to sex can prevent women from filing reports. Legal action can also be extremely difficult to pursue, because military courts—where many allegations would need to be prosecuted—lack transparency. This is all compounded by the fact that, in parts of the world, sexual exploitation and abuse is not considered a criminal act. While the UN has addressed some barriers that victims face in seeking justice, the fact remains that personnel operating under the UN flag continue to commit acts of sexual violence.

One way to determine how to address this scourge is to look more closely at what the numbers of incidences and perpetrator identities tell us, and to survey steps that have already been taken for their effectiveness. Doing so would reveal research gaps that, if filled, could support policy recommendations on how the UN should engage with member states and civil society to ensure prevention, adequate provision of services, sufficient investigative capacity, and substantive legislation in individual nations. As discussions on these issues are scheduled to take place ahead of the UN General Assembly in September, key actors—especially the national governments of troop-contributing countries (TCCs)—must be engaged so that effective accountability mechanisms can be established.

The Statistics and Perpetrators

Since 2009, the numbers of allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse have gone up and down between a high of 127 (2009) and a low of 52 (2014). However, it is widely believed that these numbers do not offer a clear depiction of what is occurring, as  collecting accurate data on acts of sexual violence is a challenge. In fact, fewer allegations do not necessarily mean an improved strategy; rather, it can mean there are barriers to filing complaints or an inefficiency in reporting mechanisms. As mentioned, women don’t come forward for a variety of reasons—fear of retribution, cultural stigma, a culture of impunity— but also poor risk mitigation tactics or policy implementation. These women’s stories are not reflected in the data. Collecting data in peacekeeping missions can also be difficult since the UN operates in areas of conflict where governments may not allow rigorous research, given the potential to reveal corruption. Truly understanding the scope of the problem requires context of the societal causes of sexual violence and attention to the voices of victims and survivors of abuse.

The UN has no authority to criminally prosecute perpetrators of sexual exploitation and abuse, and legal institutions within TCCs, and not the UN, are responsible for criminally holding perpetrators to account for their actions. UN personnel are asked to follow specific mandates, some of which apply to all personnel and others to certain categories, that determine their legal obligations and the mechanisms through which they can be held accountable, along with possible criminal procedures. While the UN can repatriate personnel on disciplinary grounds, bar those personnel from participating in future field missions, and refer them to relevant member states for appropriate disciplinary or criminal accountability measures, investigations conducted by the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) refer cases with sufficient evidence to the national government of the perpetrator.

And peacekeepers are not the only alleged perpetrators of misconduct. Allegations have been made against military, police, and civilian personnel, including non-UN international forces authorized by a Security Council mandate. All of these actors, including UN peacekeepers, often operate in high-risk locations and put their own lives at risk to create a sense of protection in local communities; sexual exploitation and abuse is antithetical to that work, making it all the more urgent to prevent it.

The UN’s Recent Response

UN personnel maintain that both sexual exploitation and abuse and sexual harassment are not isolated issues of the UN, but issues that are pervasive throughout humanitarian intervention and all international organizations.

According to the data from 2016, all 130 reported victims of sexual exploitation and abuse in peacekeeping and special political missions were female, highlighting that sexual violence is linked to gender inequality, which negatively affects both men and women. In the pursuit of UN Sustainable Development Goal 5 to empower all women and girls, achieving gender equality would not only reduce violence against women, but it would also be a contributing factor to promoting peace.

The secretary-general acknowledged that while sexual exploitation and abuse are “not unique to the UN,” the UN has the responsibility to set a “global example of best practice and leadership to be followed by all.” He said that preventing sexual exploitation and abuse has become a priority for his agenda.

In February 2018, the secretary-general–along with the Office of the Special Coordinator on Improving UN Response to Sexual Exploitation and Abuse–released a report on “measures to strengthen the system-wide response to sexual exploitation and abuse.” The report affirms the secretary-general’s commitment to “assisting and empowering those who have been scarred” by acts of sexual violence committed by personnel operating under a UN mandate, taking into account a “gender perspective.” What this means in practice is a central question.

Victims’ Rights Advocate

In 2017, Jane Connors was appointed Victims’ Rights Advocate (VRA), with the role to facilitate delivery of appropriate assistance to victims. While the secretary-general, along with the VRA, had interactions with victims on the ground in the Central African Republic, his personal intervention is not a sustainable long-term strategy for providing services to victims. He intends to appoint field victims’ rights advocates (FVRAs) who will report to the VRA at headquarters to improve UN support, including medical, psychological, and legal to victims, and to provide more opportunity for victims to come forward.

Appointing an advocate does not address all of the barriers that exist to reporting, nor the root causes of sexual exploitation and abuse, especially the systemic ones such as gender inequality and the abuse of power by senior leadership that perpetuates a culture of impunity. In addition, these advocates may not have the necessary links to victims that community-based service providers may have. There is a lack of clear communication with victims on their experiences, and it especially strains investigation and prosecution processes since many women do not understand their legal rights or are unable or unwilling to come forward. And locating, contacting, and speaking to victims may cause them shame or even put them in danger.

Member State Commitment

In the past year, the Office of the Special Coordinator, in collaboration with other UN entities and key stakeholders, have taken further action to improve the mechanisms through which perpetrators can be held accountable. One such measure is that the secretary-general encouraged peacekeeping personnel to sign written attestations that they understand the UN’s zero-tolerance policy. He also made it obligatory for personnel to report instances of sexual exploitation and abuse and made it “misconduct” not to do so as a way to protect and incentivize whistleblowers. Another measure is the proposed accountability framework for the reporting process that may facilitate communication and data collection on the ground.

But because the UN has no criminal jurisdiction over perpetrators, the national governments of individual member states still have the responsibility to uphold the zero-tolerance policy within their own contingents. Among TCCs, there is significant discrepancy in how different national legislatures handle cases of misconduct. To improve both accountability and transparency of the TCCs’ legal policy, the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations made public a list of legal frameworks for deployed contingents, as well as a list of countries that have not submitted frameworks.

In addition, the secretary-general created the Voluntary Compact, which 86 member states have signed, and the circle of leadership, which 58 government leaders and heads of state belong to, to demonstrate their collective responsibility and moral commitment to zero-tolerance of sexual exploitation and abuse. These leaders, he said in the report, have become advocates for identifying and recommending best practices in policy.

The secretary-general proposes a meeting of the circle of leadership to be convened on the margins of the 73rd session of the UN General Assembly in order to “take stock of progress and chart a course for the future,” which should be held in the coming months. But these vague commitments are not reflected in policy and lack demonstration of any substantive change. Without any action on behalf of their national governments, there can be no justice for victims.

Moving Forward

While some have deemed women’s inclusion in peacekeeping operations as a possible fix for preventing sexual exploitation and abuse, women’s participation can only be a long-term solution to sexual violence and gender inequality if women are included in peace processes and their input is equally valued in society as half of the population.

Research suggests that the “most important and consistent factor driving policy change is feminist activism,” but in host countries with unstable governments, the potential for such lobbying to have an impact is uncertain. System-wide change needs to start at the ground level, linking feminist policy activists in TCCs with service providers in host countries to best suit the needs of survivors. Since women’s active and enthusiastic participation in peacemaking processes lead to more peaceful societies, feminist grassroots activists may be able to lobby for policy that best supports victims and prevents violence in host countries by tackling legal procedures in TCCs.


The secretary-general’s 2018 report lays the groundwork for important reform regarding the legal frameworks for handling sexual exploitation and abuse among TCCs. In advance of the 73rd session of the General Assembly this September, meetings with the Voluntary Compact, the circle of leadership, and the proposed civil society advisory board will provide opportunities to develop best practices for creating safe environments for women to report allegations, ensure the safety of communities under peacekeepers’ protection, and assist in linking service providers with networks of feminist activists.

As the UN attempts to mitigate risks for reporting sexual exploitation and abuse and to provide a voice to victims, these channels aim to improve coherence in the UN response to misconduct. But rather than focus on the UN lack of action, in accordance with the peacekeeping policy of “do no harm,” valiant effort should be made to improve member states’ responsibility to hold perpetrators accountable.

Annie Rubin works with the International Peace Institute.