© Valeria Bove / UN-OVRA

Tackling sexual exploitation and abuse in the UN system
International civil servants have a duty to do no harm. Protection from sexual exploitation and abuse is everyone’s responsibility
1 Feb 2023

Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appointed Christian Saunders, a seasoned UN reformer as Special Coordinator on Improving UN Response to Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (SEA). I had the opportunity to speak with USG Saunders about his vision and priorities for tackling SEA across the UN system.

You have had a long career with the UN, what perspectives do you bring to the role of Special Coordinator on Improving the UN Response to SEA?

In addition to my time at the UN, my experience working in the field, and particularly in peacekeeping and humanitarian / refugee settings will help me in this role. Our responsibility as the UN is not limited to preventing and addressing SEA within our own agencies, we also have a responsibility to work side by side with our partners who are often NGOs and government agencies on this important issue. Within the UN, I have been fortunate enough to have worked both in the field and in headquarters and many assignments required that I work closely with different stakeholders to find common ground and solutions. These experiences will be useful in bringing about a consistent and coherent response to SEA across the aid sector. If we are going to be successful in addressing SEA, we as staff need to take a stand on this – if you SEE something, please SAY something!

What is the role of your office, and how do you support UN agencies, funds, and programs in protection from SEA?

My office helps coordinate across the UN to ensure the necessary policies, systems, resources and tools are in place to address SEA in a coherent and comprehensive manner. It is important that people understand their roles and responsibilities at all levels because combating SEA is everybody’s responsibility. An important part of my role is to assist and support those working at the country level who are dealing directly with this problem on the ground. Whatever form of assistance they need, we will be here to help. If there are cases of SEA, it is very important that victims receive assistance and support as quickly as possible and that we’re transparent in our response. In my experience, radical transparency is essential to addressing SEA. Honesty about the problems builds trust with all stakeholders including victims, partners and donors. Sometimes organisations make the mistake of not being forthcoming, primarily out of fear that it is going to hurt their reputation and funding. The truth invariably comes out and when it does, the damage to the organisation’s reputation at that point is often much greater.

The position of Special Coordinator on Improving UN Response to SEA was created in 2016. What have been the achievements of the UN to date and what will be your priorities?

A lot has been done since 2016. The Secretary-General issued his new strategy in 2017 which was a major change in the way the organisation looked at SEA. We went from a strategy aimed at trying to protect the fallout to the reputation of the UN to one which is victim-centered. A strategy that recognises that we have an accountability and responsibility towards the victims of SEA. There has been good progress in improving coordination within the UN system and with our implementing partners, whether NGOs, IGOs, or government. Progress has been made on developing coordination mechanisms, policies, SOPs, background checks, training and more. Now, we need to focus on the operational and coordination aspects of our work on the ground. Much more is needed to advocate and strengthen how we address SEA from the operational perspective, ensuring, for example, that every humanitarian response has Protection from sexual Exploitation and Abuse (PSEA) Coordinators and trained focal points on the ground from the outset of an emergency, that they have the resources to do their job properly, resources to take care of victims and to empower the communities in which we work. We also need to mainstream PSEA so that it becomes part of our core activities, it needs to become part of the DNA of everyone who works in this space whether that’s in peacekeeping, humanitarian

response or in development work.

Despite the UN commitment to prevent SEA, over the past 20 years, we still see headlines in the media about allegations of SEA by UN workers, whether in humanitarian crises, peacekeeping operations, or refugee camps. What are the greatest barriers to preventing SEA in high-risk and sensitive contexts and what could the UN do better?

Sadly, SEA is ingrained in all our societies. It is rooted in inequality, in power differentials, in poverty, and has been present for thousands of years. Until we recognize the power differentials and address those, until we see gender equality and until we see a better standard of living across the world, we’re going to continue to see cases of SEA. If we’re going to address SEA in a more sustainable and meaningful way, we need to incorporate relevant considerations in the UN’s programmatic work on a more systematic basis. In terms of criminal accountability, there must be serious consequences for crimes involving sexual violence. One frustration I hear a lot is how long it takes to complete investigations and the lack of feedback given to the victims and to those working in the field concerning these cases. I am aware that investigations into crimes involving sexual violence, particularly in the environments in which the UN and its partners operate are not easy, but I will be reaching out to our investigation colleagues to see what we can do to improve, including increasing resources, better information flow and reduced timelines.

How is the UN taking a victim and survivor-centred approach to the prevention and response to SEA?

It’s an important question. We have the Office of the Victims’ Rights Advocate that has the lead in 

this area and demonstrates the importance the Secretary-General places on victims’ rights and support. There are unfortunately only four Senior victims’ rights officers in the field who have thus far been appointed and they are in major integrated peacekeeping operations. Victims must get necessary assistance and support quickly. They may need medical care, psycho-social support, legal assistance and support to rebuild their lives and to support any children born of SEA. We also need timely investigations, and to make sure that when people are found guilty, they are held to account. While I appreciate that it is not a simple matter, we must do more to ensure that these crimes do not go unpunished.

How does your office ensure that perpetrators of SEA are held accountable?

We need to do everything that we can to hold perpetrators to account in a timely manner. Often, investigations take over a year, then the HR process can take as long as another year, so it’s potentially two years after the event was reported. This is too long! We must also be better at communicating the outcome of investigations. Although there is a report on disciplinary measures submitted to the General Assembly on an annual basis, not many people are aware that it exists, and the absence of ‘visible’ accountability adds to the feeling that there is impunity within the organisation which makes our task of prevention that much harder. It’s very important that investigations are timely and professional, that perpetrators are punished, and that the punishment fits the crime, whether that’s the internal disciplinary process within the organisation, and/ or criminal prosecution through the legal system. It’s not an easy thing to tackle, we’re a huge bureaucracy with a complex regulatory framework and people are entitled to due process, but we need to be better and to properly hold people to account for their transgressions and do so in a timely manner.

Is there anything you would like our readers to know that has not been covered?

There is no place for sexual exploitation and abuse in our societies and ending sexual exploitation and abuse by UN and partner personnel must be our collective priority. I see myself and our office as being there to help the UN system and our partners to achieve this – regardless of what position you hold, where you are located or what agency or entity you work for – people should feel comfortable to reach out to me and my office at any time for any support they might need. 

* Nina Lacroix is a Humanitarian Affairs Intern working on protection from sexual exploitation and abuse for OCHA.
Read more articles about GLOBAL AFFAIRS