Allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation in U.N peacekeeping and political missions rose significantly in 2019, with allegations against civilian personnel nearly doubling, a U.N. report said Friday.Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in the report to the U.N. General Assembly that while the number of alleged victims and perpetrators decreased last year, the number of allegations increased to 80 from the 56 reported in 2018.
In armed conflicts, the breakdown of social infrastructures, the disintegration of families and communities and the disruption of responses leave women and girls vulnerable to sexual and other forms of gender-based violence, including rape by combatants and intimate partners or acquaintances and, at times, sexual exploitation by humanitarian actors.
More than half of the 2019 allegations — 41 — were related to the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Central African Republic, while 15 involved the mission in Congo, the report said. The joint African Union-United Nations peacekeeping force in Darfur, the U.N. force in Lebanon, and the former peacekeeping missions in Liberia and Haiti accounted for three-fourths of the remaining 24 cases, it said.
The rest involved three special political missions — the Office of the Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Syria, the United Nations Verification Mission in Colombia, and the United Nations Integrated Peacebuilding Office in Guinea -Bissau.
The United Nations has long been in the spotlight over allegations of child rape and other sexual abuses by its peacekeepers, especially those based in Central African Republic and Congo. But the latest figures demonstrate again that sexual misconduct spans the entire U.N. system.
The report said allegations involving U.N. civilian personnel rose from 13 in 2018 to 25 in 2019, while allegations involving military personnel increased from 39 in 2018 to 49 in 2019. There were 37 allegations associated with paternity claims, it said.
As for sexual exploitation and abuse involving staff working for U.N. agencies, funds and programs, it said 95 allegations were reported in 2019, up from 93 in 2018.
Guterres stressed in the report that the majority of the more than 190,000 uniformed and civilian personnel in more than 30 bodies in the U.N. system serve “with professionalism and dedication,” but he said “significant challenges” remain in dealing with sexual abuse and exploitation.
“The high turnover of personnel, combined with the vulnerable environments in which the United Nations operates, require constant vigilance to ensure that systems are in place to identify and mitigate risk, screen and train our personnel and respond in a victim-centered, timely and robust way to allegations when they are received,” the U.N. chief said.
Guterres has made combating sexual abuse and exploitation a high priority and stressed enforcement of the U.N.‘s “zero-tolerance” policy for sexual misconduct. He initiated a series of reforms to U.N. peacekeeping to speed up investigations, and appointed a victims’ advocate to help victims of sexual abuse.
But Paula Donovan, co-director of AIDS-Free World and its Code Blue campaign, which works to fight impunity for sexual exploitation and abuse by U.N. personnel, said the numbers in the report demonstrate “that the U.N. is failing, that the secretary-general’s new approach is not succeeding.”
She told The Associated Press that “sexual exploitation, at least when tracked year after year after year, is not improving because of the special measures that have been taken.”
Donovan also pointed to the report’s finding that 42% of investigations completed since 2010 substantiated allegations, while 58% were unsubstantiated — either for lack of evidence or the alleged perpetrator being fired for misconduct or leaving the United Nations.
Asked about the criticism, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said that “the report is a very clear picture of the situation.”
“The secretary-general has been focused from day one on tackling the scourge of sexual abuse head on,” he said.
However, he added, “No one, including the secretary-general can be pleased with the fact that we still have to face these cases and he will continue to focus the work of the organization to tackle it.”
Whether sexual violence occurs in the context of an intimate partnership, within the larger family or community structure, or during times of conflict, it is a deeply violating and painful experience for the survivor.