While people within the UN make all the right noises when the issue is raised, it does not often translate into actionby Hannah Bryce / January 30, 2018 / Leave a comment
After allegations about harassment broke recently, a picture has begun to form of the UN as being both a promoter and defender of women’s rights but, at the same time, consistently turning a blind eye to sexual abuse and exploitation perpetrated by its own staff, and others working under the UN flag and rules.
In response to reports of sexual assault and harassment within the organisation going unpunished, Jan Beagle, under-secretary general for management at the UN, has re-asserted the UN policy of zero tolerance of sexual harassment and abuse. “Even one case of sexual harassment, anywhere, is one too many,” she said.
Rather than reassure however, this instead highlights the real problem: the difference that exists between theory and practice when it comes to accountability within the UN.
This gap has created and sustained an institutional culture that not only fails to address pernicious behaviour, but may in fact perpetuate it by offering a smokescreen of credibility.
A patchwork of reports and stories over the last few years suggests that sexual abuse is rife and largely unchecked within UN operations. Between 2004 and 2016, over 2,000 allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse have been made against UN peacekeepers—those who wear blue helmets and work under UN rules, even if they are personnel temporarily assigned from the services of member states.
Although the UN is not the only organisation in the humanitarian sector to have had accusations of sexual harassment made against it, it is uniquely placed because of its size and influence to dispel and change what Kate Gilmore, deputy high commissioner for human rights at the UN, has described as a “culture of toxic tolerance.”
This culture, characterised by silence and flawed, ineffective internal processes—which, in the case of peacekeepers, often lead to cases being dropped before even being referred back to national authorities—means that the extent of the issue is not fully understood, let alone dealt with rigorously.
If it was a contained issue it could seem solvable, but lack of accountability is a common thread running throughout the UN, making the problem appear institutional rather than specific to one agency or one activity.
When stepping down from his role as Assistant Secretary General for Field Support in 2016, Anthony Banbury stated that it’s “virtually impossible to fire someone in the United Nations.”