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Stopping Sex Abuse in UN Peacekeeping: Guterres’s Direct Call for Political Support


United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres’s plan to end sex abuse in peace operations involves a Circle of Leadership, which features a compact that world leaders sign to act as models of erudition in UN peace operations. Here, a peacekeeper in the Central African Republic.  

The United Nations’ top coordinator of a drive to end sexual exploitation and abuse in and around peacekeeping missions says the organization cannot succeed without more political support from member nations and cooperation from independent, civilian humanitarian and development agencies working with the UN.

Jane Holl Lute, the special coordinator with the rank of under secretary-general for the UN’s response to the scandals in recent years — which have left local victims of abuse without adequate legal recourse and damaged the organization’s reputation — has been working with Secretary-General António Guterres on a program to be formally introduced on Sept 18. Guterres is calling his plan a “new approach.”

“There are no misunderstandings about the problem we have on this front and how we need to tackle it pragmatically,” Lute said in an interview. “But also there is no way we can succeed unless we have the cooperation and active engagement of member states.”

Secretary-General Guterres brings to his work on exploitation and abuse his 10-year experience as UN High Commissioner for Refugees, after a decade spent operating among the most wretched of the earth’s people who suffer in terror and squalor in refugee settlements. Most refugees, vulnerable and demoralized, live in ad hoc constructions or on patches of barren land that barely let them sustain life, stripped of their basic needs and dignity and an easy target for abusers.

These are the environments where outsiders may come on assignments, whether as peacekeeping troops or suppliers of aid. Some of them yield to inhumane and illegal behavior. For years, there have been cases of trading food or other commodities for sex or enslaving defenseless women or girls (and sometimes boys) for orgies of rape and other coercive abuses. Many are held in captivity as temporary “wives,” also a hallmark of numerous militant groups.

“This is an issue he has personally engaged with since the very outset of his administration,” Lute said of Guterres. “Since the second or third day he was in office, it was very clear where he wanted to go, with respect to this agenda. He has a deep understanding of the issue, and he hit the ground running. He has not only an operator’s understanding — what it’s like when you’re running operations on the ground in the most difficult places, where there are imbalances of power involving beneficiaries of UN assistance and those who are providing it. He also has a policy thinker’s point of view and a political point of view.”

Lute was appointed coordinator by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in 2016; she shares with Guterres extensive knowledge of the issues. She also brings to the office academic perspective. A plainspoken, energetic American, Lute was an officer in the US army through an ROTC program in college and earned a Ph.D. in political science from Stanford University and a doctorate in law from Georgetown. She has been deputy secretary of the US Department of Homeland Security. At the UN, she has been an assistant secretary-general for worldwide peacekeeping operations and later for peacebuilding.

In an interview with PassBlue, Lute said that Guterres’s plan for dealing with abuse, first formulated in a March 2017 report, upends somewhat the traditional scheme of things. First priority is assigned to creating a stronger system of protecting victims’ rights and preventing abuses. UN agencies and special representatives have not performed well in notable cases, especially in African conflicts, a situation described as an inherent bane of a dysfunctional UN.

To emphasize this priority, the secretary-general has appointed the UN’s first victims’ rights advocate, Jane Connors of Australia, who will take on the task full time. Connors has held several UN positions, including with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Office of High Commissioner for Refugees. She is currently the international director for law and policy at Amnesty International in Geneva.

Next on the secretary-general’s list, Lute said: “We need to create a culture that rejects the notion of impunity, where people understand that authority is about responsibility.”

“The third element of the initiative would be to engage with outsiders,” she continued. “This is not a problem we can solve by ourselves or the member states. We need the active engagement of civil society. And here we think a multistakeholder approach will strengthen the response.”

Lute said the UN leadership would say to civil society groups, which are often most critical of the UN: “What can you be doing in this area? How do you measure success — because we have our own views about that? How can you help us get better? What can you do to contribute to this agenda that we can all develop together?”

Finally, Lute said, is the establishment of clearer, more effective communication within the UN and with partners. It is common among UN staff that they are often apprehensive about reporting abuses because there could be consequences for their careers. “If people can’t come forward without fear of retribution,” Lute said, “then they’re not going to come forward.”

On Sept. 18, the official launching of Guterres’s new policy — ironically the same day the Trump administration is planning to gather leaders to talk about more comprehensive UN management reforms — dozens, if not scores, of government leaders and other high-ranking global officials are expected to be showcased as champions of action against abuses. But Guterres plans to do more in his outreach to diplomatic missions in New York and others.

A Circle of Leadership will be introduced at the Sept. 18 debut. It is an open-ended initiative, with no limit on numbers and a still-amorphous agenda, with the “leaders” designed to be message-bearers and modelmakers.

“The heads of state, of government of all 193 member states have been invited,” Lute said. “It’s really a call by the secretary-general to leaders around the world to stand up and be counted on this agenda. To speak out about it at national events. To strengthen the international community’s ability to fight this scourge and really also to have the UN be a model of best practice.”

“We recognize that we have a long way to go, but we are moving aggressively to tackle the problem,” Lute added.

Over the month of August, Guterres demanded that attendees needed a “ticket” to the September event and the chance to join the Circle of Leadership, which requires that heads of state and government sign a compact agreeing to certify their citizens who serve with the UN “have not committed, or have alleged to have committed, criminal offenses, including of a sexual nature, and/or violations of human rights law or international humanitarian law.”

Among other actions that government leaders must take in their countries are the “professional development of uniformed personnel, particularly commanders” and deploy to UN missions only commanders of national battalions who have peacekeeping experience and clear legal records. Governments will be expected to carry out internationally credible investigations when allegations of sexual abuse arise and ensure that their national investigators have the experience and independence to bring cases to trial under their respective legal systems. Both military and civilian personnel are to be covered in the new plan.

The obvious and legitimate question is whether such demands and prohibitions, covered somewhat in UN rules but widely ignored, will be followed under a signed compact. The secretary-general has no enforcement powers but has told government leaders that he is keeping their signed compacts on file — political pressure is his only real tool and Guterres needs and wants allies.

Some governments, however, are already negotiating with UN officials to introduce their own terms of agreement. As is all too common at the UN, the office keeping track of the leaders attending the Sept. 18 meeting declined to divulge this information.

“His recognition is that a political agenda has to come from the highest level,” Lute said. “There’s a lot we can and will do from the bottom up . . . but the tone has to be set at the top. We already have commitments from heads of state and government, and more are coming.”

Lute said the hope was that “a sense of urgency and power” behind each nation’s commitment “will elevate the profile of these commitments and bring more people into the picture.”

Enlisting governments to help works, Lute said. She told the story of Malawi, a small country in southern Africa.

“I can give you a best practice from Malawi,” she said. “What they do is not just rely on their training, but they run competitions for their commanders in the field. You have to have prior experience as a peacekeeper and you have to develop and provide a prevention of sexual exploitation program.

“So when I was in the field in CAR [the Central African Republic] last year, I said to a commander: ‘Show me your plan,’ and the guy whipped it out of his pocket and laid it on the table. I looked at it and thought: This is real. So at some level — and part of reason why the secretary general applies a political component in this agenda — is that the solution cannot only rely on what’s happening on the ground. We have highly qualified human rights officers that are often too few and far between.”

But success can also come, Lute said, “when we get military commanders, when we get political leadership saying you’re going to answer to me, and we know what best practice looks like.”

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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