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UN Exemptions Make Mockery of Sexual Abuse in World Body

The UN General Assembly, the ultimate authority to ban exemptions on sexual abuse in the UN system. Credit: UN photo/Manuel Elias

UNITED NATIONS, Jun 7 2018 (IPS) - When allegations of sexual harassment were made against a senior UN official—holding the rank of Under-Secretary-General at the International Civil Service Commission (ICSC)– the United Nations admitted that Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has no jurisdiction over a UN body created by the General Assembly and answerable only to member states.

But this glaring exemption to the UN’s much-ballyhooed “zero tolerance policy on sexual exploitation and abuse” (SEA) also applies to several other UN bodies created by the General Assembly, including, most importantly, the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ) and the Joint Inspection Unit (JIU) — making a mockery of the ongoing fight against harassment in the world body.

And these exemptions may also cover some of the UN “Commissions, Boards, Committees, Councils and Panels” – all of which are considered subsidiary bodies of the General Assembly.

“I find it absolutely appalling that three of the UN entities entrusted with the responsibility of ensuring effective functioning of the UN system are themselves flouting some basic UN norms, taking advantage of legal lacuna without any supervision of the Secretary-General,” Ambassador Anwarul K. Chowdhury, former Under-Secretary-General, UN High Representative and Chairman of the General Assembly’s Administrative and Budgetary Committee (commonly referred to as the Fifth Committee) (1997-1998), told IPS.

He said it is “extremely urgent” that this situation be addressed without any more delay by the 193-member UN General Assembly (UNGA).

“By feeling helpless about such abuse and misuse in view of its past resolutions, the Assembly is shunning its responsibility as the world’s highest intergovernmental decision-making body,” Chowdhury said.

Asked for her comments on the ICSC exemption from the UN’s zero tolerance policy, Dr Purna Sen, Director of Policy at UN Women, Executive Coordinator and newly-appointed Spokesperson on Sexual Harassment and Discrimination, told IPS that zero tolerance is not an optional extra that (some) employers can apply or not.

“It must have universal reach so that all staff can enjoy safety and respect”.

First of all, she pointed out, sexual abuse, harassment, exploitation and assault are all aspects of sexual violence. There are laws against violence and all states have committed to ending violence by 2030 (Agenda 2030 and Sustainable Development Goals 5.2).

“The obligation for ending violence rests with states but all actors, the private sector, universities etc all have a role to play in making this happen. ICSC cannot be exempt from this work: independence cannot confer impunity,” Dr Sen said.

Secondly, the notion there can be places where accountability cannot reach is not tenable.

“With great respect for women who have shouted and hollered until they have been heard, I wish to note the international clamour from women who have put abusers on notice,” she noted.

The MeToo, BalanceTonPorc and other such women-led imperatives for change have at last got attention. Accountability has to be made real – at the ICSC, as well as elsewhere, Dr Sen said.

Finally, it seems that any exemption from the UN’ policies is something that exists due to a General Assembly resolution.

“It is surely within the authority and competence of the GA then to review and change that situation.”

The need for independence cannot trump the need for safety and respectful workplaces, where abuse of power and gender inequality are rendered obsolete, she declared.

“Surely our collective efforts are not incapable of finding arrangements for their co-existence such that staff and the public have confidence in the whole UN system.”

Seeking an intervention by the Secretary-General and the GA President, Chowdhury told IPS: “I believe very strongly that the President of the Assembly, with his trusted leadership, needs to take the initiative on a priority basis, in consultation with the Secretary-General, to table a UNGA resolution to overcome this lack of jurisdiction and control which results in such abuse without any higher supervisory control”.

He said “past decisions should not be an excuse to overlook such aberrations which the IPS article has very rightly highlighted. Independence of a UN entity should not give it immunity to disregard norms which are core values of the UN.”

Asked to weigh in with his comments, Ian Richards, President of the 60,000-strong Coordinating Committee of International Staff Unions and Associations of the UN System (CCISUA), told IPS: “We expect all parts of the UN system to have policies and structures in place to prevent sexual harassment, in line with Secretary-General Guterres’s promise of zero tolerance.”

“This allows our member unions to help victims assert their individual rights to a harassment-free workplace and get justice when their rights are infringed,” he added.

However, he pointed out, “we are currently unable to assist staff who work for bodies such as the ICSC, ACABQ and JIU, to benefit from these rights. This despite their staff also having UN contracts and being appointed by the Secretary-General.”

He said the ICSC will itself touch on this issue when it discusses workforce diversity at its 87th session this July in Bonn.

“We hope it will join us in calling for consistent HR policies and structures throughout, without of course compromising the independence these bodies require to do their job.”

Brenden Varma, Spokesman for the President of the General Assembly (PGA) told IPS: “It’s for Member States to take such an initiative – not the PGA. From the PGA’s side, he continues to stand firmly against all forms of sexual abuse and harassment.”

Meanwhile, providing an update on cases of sexual exploitation and abuse in the UN system, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters May 1 that for the first three months of this year, from 1 January to 31 March 2018, there were 54 allegations for all UN entities and implementing partners.

But not all allegations have been fully verified, and many are in the preliminary assessment phase, he added.

Out of the 54 allegations, he said, 14 are reported from peacekeeping operations and 18 from agencies, funds and programmes. Twenty-one allegations relate to implementing partners and one to a member of a non-UN international force.

Of the 54 allegations, 17 are categorized as sexual abuse, 34 as sexual exploitation, and 3 are of an unknown nature.

The allegations involve 66 victims — including 13 girls (under the age of 18) and 16 victims whose age remains unknown.

With regard to the status of the allegations, he said, 2 have been substantiated by an investigation; 2 were not substantiated; 21 are at various stages of investigation; 27 are under preliminary assessment; and 1 investigation’s result is under review.

With over 95,000 civilians and 90,000 uniformed personnel working for the UN, sexual exploitation and abuse are not reflective of the conduct of the majority of the dedicated women and men who serve the Organization, Dujarric said.

“But every allegation involving our personnel undermines our values and principles and the sacrifice of those who serve with pride and professionalism in some of the most dangerous places in the world. For this reason, combating this scourge, and helping and empowering those who have been scarred by these egregious acts, continue to be key priorities for the Secretary-General in 2018.”

At a meeting with the Secretary-General in London on May 3, the executive heads of UN agencies, who are members of the Chief Executives Board (CEB), reiterated “their firm commitment to uphold a zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment; to strengthen victim-centred prevention and response efforts; and to foster a safe and inclusive working environment.”

In addition, they pledged to provide mechanisms such as 24-hour helplines for staff to report harassment and access support; establish a system-wide database to avoid rehire of individuals who have perpetrated sexual harassment.

The CEB also pledged to institute fast track procedures to receive, process and address complaints; recruit specialized investigators, including women; enforce mandatory training; provide guidelines for managers; harmonize policies; and launch staff perception surveys to learn from experiences.

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