Rape and the UN’s lack of accountability—in my own case and beyond

By — October 1, 2015

By now it is clear that there are accountability problems within the United Nations system when it comes to sexual assault. Between the Code Blue campaign fighting for accountability in cases of sexual exploitation and rape of children and women in the Central African Republic by French peacekeepers and the latest scandal involving a UN contractor in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the issue of impunity for UN employees, including peacekeepers, civilians, consultants, and contractors, is now being discussed at all levels within the UN system—and outside of it, too.

But there is, of course, a difference between hearing such stories and experiencing them.

Mine is a story like this. In early 2015, I was drugged and raped by an employee of a UNICEF contractor while I was working at a UN base in Bentiu, South Sudan.

A UN employee looks on as women gather in South Sudan. (Megan Nobert)

The international nongovernmental organization I worked for did not have a comprehensive policy on sexual exploitation and abuse or a focal person with training on sexualized violence. No one on the ground was prepared to handle a case like mine. My case was swept under the rug.

My attempts to get accountability through UNICEF were dismissed—and continue to be dismissed. I have been told repeatedly that UNICEF has no legal obligations in my situation, that my remedy exists only with the contractor, and that I should go to the local police for criminal accountability.

But UNICEF’s response ignored the reality of my situation. The assault happened in South Sudan, where going to the police was an option that I believe would have resulted in my being harassed, or even arrested, by the local authorities. Pursuing legal options in the home country of my assailant was also not an option as he is Syrian—he’s from a war zone in which I would also face harassment and possible arrest if I were to try and file charges of rape.

Moreover, according to reports from the contractor to myself and the media, UNICEF had the contractor dismiss my assailant before I was allowed to file a complaint, a move the organization believed was the appropriate reaction to my complaint. What that meant, however, was that my assailant was sent out of the country, with pay, and any opportunity for me to gain a form of traditional justice was eliminated.

None of this should have happened.

Better recourse for victims
The first line of responsibility should be with the survivor’s own organization. That organization should have in place a policy on sexual exploitation and abuse, one that allows a complainant to report his or her case to senior management. The response of management should be sensitive, should include assisting the survivor in accessing medical and emotional care, and should involve a point person who is trained and equipped to speak with the survivor.

The survivor’s organization should assist the survivor in filing a complaint or a report and ensure the survivor is removed from the environment in which the assault occurred and relocated to a safe place. The organization should be equipped to assist its employees with all legal matters, including filing charges against the assailant.

The next line of responsibility lies with the organization that employed the assailant. There should be a comprehensive policy on sexual exploitation and abuse, one that is prepared to handle and conduct inquiries into complaints of sexualized violence against employees. A disciplinary panel should be in place that is capable of dismissing any employee who has violated its policies, but in such a way that it does not prevent the survivor from seeking criminal charges. The organization should be able to refer its employee for criminal charges—locally, if this is appropriate, and to the country of the employee’s origin, if not. It should also make any necessary changes to ensure that this type of crime did not occur again.

But, in reality, many organizations do not have comprehensive sexual exploitation and abuse policies—and impunity is a far more likely scenario. The tangled web of accountability for crimes of sexualized violence between the various UN and humanitarian agencies on the ground leaves immense gaps of responsibility—in particular, when discussing the accountability of UN contractors.

The spokesman for the UN secretary-general has stated that the UN has no criminal authority abroad, and that it is not capable of prosecuting criminal cases. But while it is true that the UN has limitations in terms of its capacity to initiate criminal prosecutions, it is not accurate to say that it is in no way responsible for criminal acts and cannot initiate investigations.

The UN has conducted investigations into criminal allegations against UN employees and launched probes into accusations against UN contractors. The United Nations Development Programme even provides a link on its website to its “investigative guidelines,” which include the authority to investigate allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse within the organization.

Therefore, to state that the UN has no criminal authority and cannot prosecute crimes is a mischaracterization of what it does on the ground.

There is nothing preventing the UN from pushing member states to pursue criminal investigations against their own nationals in cases such as mine. The UN Secretary-General has vowed to name and shame any countries with nationals involved in peacekeeping sexual abuse scandals. Why is this same principle not applied to other UN employees who commit acts of sexualized violence?

Instead, the UN has stated that survivors need to pursue criminal accountability in the following locations: the country where the crime occurred or the perpetrator’s country of origin. But this fails to take into account the realities of the criminal justice system in conflict zones where the UN works. More important, it places an unfair burden on survivors and ensures that only a fraction of them are able to get criminal accountability for the attacks they have undergone.

There might be exceptions, but filing a complaint of sexualized violence against a perpetrator within a conflict zone is highly unrealistic. Humanitarian work tends to take place in countries where justice systems are not well functioning. Police officers will likely not have the training to handle such complaints with sensitivity. Rape myths—in particular, victim-blaming—may still be strong within the local culture, and reporting an assault may put a survivor in danger of being arrested or harassed or even retraumatized.

Pursuing charges of sexualized violence against perpetrators in their home countries is an option, legally, but practically it’s too unrealistic. Trying to pursue charges for a crime in another country is also problematic. The chain of custody can be difficult to prove in cross-border cases, particularly when crimes took place in locations where the police were unable or unwilling to conduct an investigation. This does not even take into account potential language barriers and the challenges of hiring legal counsel abroad. Moreover, the cost of pursuing justice in another country can be prohibitive—it restricts justice only to those with access to the necessary funds.

What’s next—and what to do?
As it currently stands, criminal accountability is difficult to obtain, if at all. Where does that leave humanitarian survivors of sexualized violence like me? The UN has already admitted that there may be a gap in the accountability of UN contractors for handling accusations of sexualized violence. Who, then, should be responsible for the actions of UN contractors and their employees when they commit these crimes?

I believe that the solution is to extend the UN’s current level of accountability to its employees, consultants, and volunteers to their contractors.

At this time, neither the UN General Conditions of Contract nor the UN Supplier Code of Conduct creates a requirement for UN contractors to have policies or procedures regarding sexual exploitation and abuse. Neither document establishes accountability for UN contractors when their employees perpetrate sexualized violence. On an ad hoc basis, according to anonymous sources within the UN, some UN agencies require their contractors to sign agreements, on behalf of their employees, to not commit acts of sexualized violence. Setting aside the fact that this is not currently standard practice, the accountability established by such signed agreements is unclear.

Making this standard practice is one way we can begin to close the accountability gap for UN contractors. This would hold them to a higher standard and result in a more thorough vetting process. It would also ensure that there are procedures and policies that can be followed when the employees of contractors break the law.

But this solution might result in some pushback. While this would not be an elevation of the standards currently in place—it would be merely an extension in application—it would require additional resources to ensure those standards are met. It may also reduce the number of contractors with whom the UN might be able to work, which is already a challenge depending on the country and industry.

All UN peacekeeping missions currently have a Conduct and Discipline Team. All humanitarian emergencies are supposed to have a sexual exploitation and abuse focal point. These elements already exist—the problem is that they are not being utilized.

The situation at hand cannot be easily fixed, but I believe that the pieces are already in place to ensure that cases such as mine are investigated. We can hold UN contractors to the standard that other employees of the UN are already held. We can use the investigatory bodies already on the ground. We can stop putting the pursuit of criminal accountability solely in the hands of survivors—which is not only morally reprehensible but allows impunity to thrive.