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.”
Indeed, despite ostensible failures of some UN missions, there is little or no accountability for those who oversee those failures. With a staff of around 44,000 it is easy for people to be moved around and lost within a system that struggles to recruit staff in a timely manner.
Banbury has characterised this lack of accountability as one of the products of a deeply inefficient personnel recruitment process that—despite recent attempts to improve it—can take well over 200 days to complete.
Such a clunky system, particularly in contexts which are inherently dealing with emergencies, discourages those in charge from censuring or dismissing staff. To do so could put a further strain on, or even jeopardise, operations.
This sort of systematic failure is particularly insidious in an organisation such as the UN, which has all the trappings of good governance in place—but fails to put them in practice.
The recent revelations about sexual harassment and assault illustrate that this illusion of accountability is having very severe consequences on the integrity of the UN as an organisation and, more importantly, to the victims of its indifference.
The Secretary General’s recently launched gender parity strategy, for instance, has been cited as part of the solution to the sexual abuse claims.
Yet whilst the strategy is a significant and welcome step towards improving gender balance within the UN, it must not become a panacea for all issues that are considered predominantly “women-specific.”
Creating an enabling environment will only be possible with a more fundamental shift in how the UN addresses performance issues, from minor infractions all the way to the serious and, in some cases, criminal actions alleged by some of its staff.
If these are not addressed, the issue of gender balance will likely become more pronounced not less. If perpetrators of abuse are not held to account then it will be those who are the victims of this culture instead that will leave.
In the case of sexual abuse and harassment this will mean that it will be overwhelmingly women who will find somewhere else to work.
A survey of more than 1,000 women from a range of humanitarian organisations carried out by the Humanitarian Women’s Network, found that one of the major impacts of sexual harassment and gender based discrimination was for women to take “themselves out of the game”—to leave the job and sometimes field based work altogether.
While people within the UN make all the right noises when the issue is raised, it does not often translate into action. Without a rigorous overhaul of the current structures and procedures in place to move the culture from one of impunity to one of accountability, the UN will remain part of the problem rather than part of the solution.
This report is part of an ongoing series on women, security and peacebuilding supported by Women, War & Peace II broadcast series and The Fuller Project.