Investigations published by the Guardian last Thursday have revealed a prevalence of sexual harassment and assault among United Nations (UN) staff, exposing a ‘culture of impunity’ and raising serious concerns about the UN’s current response to such incidences within the organization. 15 current and previous employees have claimed they experienced some form of sexual abuse at the hands of another staff member in the past five years, ranging from verbal harassment to rape. Seven of these women were warned by another staff member or ombudsman to not make a formal complaint to the UN, as they would risk losing their job, and it was likely no meaningful action would be taken. Indeed, three women who did decide to report their harassment or assault have since lost their positions within the UN or have been threatened with the termination of their contract, while their accusers still remain in their posts. Two women have claimed that when the UN investigated their formal complaints, they failed to interview key witnesses and allowed the accused to exert power to influence the investigation proceedings.
One aid worker talked of her frustrating experience with the UN justice system after being harassed by a senior UN employee, saying that “they mobilize friends [and] colleagues against you. I had threats, sent through friends, that ‘she will never set foot in this office again.'” Paula Donovan, co-director of Aids-Free World and the Code Blue campaign, attributes the UN’s current response to a pervasive silent bystander culture, while Peter Gallo, a former Office of Internal Oversight Services investigator for the UN, states that when conducting investigations into such incidences “the only rule is not to publicly embarrass the organisation.” A statement by the UN promised to respond to these investigations by “strengthening our capacities to investigate reports and to support victims.”
The sexual abuse revealed within the United Nations mirrors recent accusations of similar conduct and response in a variety of institutions, particularly in Hollywood, politics, and the tech industry. As in those instances, the senior leadership of the UN is predominately male, and young female staff on internships or short-term contracts are particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation as the balance of power is so severely skewed towards high-ranking UN officials (many of whom have the equivalent of diplomatic immunity). It is disheartening that the UN seems to be purposefully protecting the status quo when allegations of sexual abuse are made, particularly as it portrays itself as the world’s custodian of human rights, security, and peace.
The UN has for years been accused of inadequately responding to allegations of peacekeepers sexually exploiting and abusing civilians while deployed on peace missions. The accusations made by UN staff in the past week reveal that the UN’s silencing of victims for the benefit of the organisation’s public image, covers not merely civilians who are meant to be under the protection of UN missions, but also extends to staff who believe they are helping to achieve the UN’s goals of promoting global peace and security. They are being betrayed by the organisation they work for when they attempt to seek justice for acts of sexual abuse through internal mechanisms.
It is clear from the findings of this investigation that the UN cares more about institutional survival than appropriately responding to the issue. If the UN is to remain a credible, influential force in the international system, it must be able to receive valid critique and admit wrongdoings, where an appropriate first step would be to recognize and dismantle the skewed power structure that exists within the organisation, and work towards creating a safe working environment for their staff.