New Ways for the United Nations to Tackle Sexual Exploitation and Abuse

Tuesday, December 4, 2018
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres speaks during a high-level meeting on the prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse, before the 72nd UN General Assembly in New York, United States. September 18, 2017. Lucas Jackson/REUTERS
Karen Pierce

Ambassador and Permanent Representative of the United Kingdom to the United Nations

Paula Donovan

Codirector, AIDS-Free World


Senior Fellow, Women and Foreign Policy Program, Council on Foreign Relations

Sexual exploitation and abuse has tarnished the operations of peacekeepers charged with protecting civilians, thereby undermining the integrity and effectiveness of international peacekeeping institutions across the globe. It puts at risk the international aid community’s ability to deliver life-saving help to the people they are tasked to serve. Despite the policies, procedures, and practices in place to address sexual exploitation and abuse, cultures of impunity persist across the United Nations and the aid sector. Karen Pierce and Paula Donovan discuss innovative ideas to prevent the continued perpetration of—and lack of accountability for—sexual exploitation and abuse. 


BIGIO: Good afternoon, everybody. Good afternoon.

Welcome, everyone, to the Council on Foreign Relations. My name is Jamille Bigio, and I’m a senior fellow with the Council’s Women and Foreign Policy Program.

For those who aren’t familiar with our program, it was established over fifteen years now. We’ve been working to analyze how elevating the status of women and girls advances U.S. foreign policy objectives, including prosperity and stability.

I do want to take a moment before we begin to thank our Advisory Council members who are with us today, as well as the Compton Foundation for its generous support for today’s discussion.

I also want to remind everyone that the event is on the record, including the presentation, discussion, and question-and-answer period.

In the wake of the global #MeToo movement, the United Nations has faced mounting scrutiny over its handling of sexual exploitation and abuse cases. For decades now, allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse have been raised against U.N. personnel, against peacekeepers charged with protecting civilians against aid workers tasked with delivering lifesaving goods. Sexual abuse has violated the lives of countless women and girls, men and boys, while also undermining the integrity and the effectiveness of international peacekeeping institutions, the aid sector, and the United Nations more broadly around the world.

The U.N. has a zero-tolerance policy in place. It has appointed new leadership to institute reforms, including a special coordinator on improving the United Nations’ response to sexual exploitation and abuse, and the U.N. rights advocate for victims of sexual exploitation.

So why does impunity persist? What can the U.N. do about it? And how can member states and civil society help to address this issue?

We’re thrilled today to be joined by two perspectives to reflect on this issue at the U.N. and among peacekeepers and across the broader aid sector. Shortly, we’ll be joined by Ambassador Karen Pierce, the permanent representative of the United Kingdom to the United Nations. And we’re thrilled to be joined as well by Paula Donovan, who’s co-director of AIDS-Free World. And they have led the Code Blue Campaign that is driving attention to ending impunity for sexual abuse by U.N. personnel.

I want to start first by identifying just what the problem is before turning to new ideas of how to tackle it.

Paula, if you could start us off in sharing, why does the problem of impunity for sexual exploitation and abuse persist?

DONOVAN: OK, thank you. Thank you very much, Jamille. And it’s a pleasure to be here with everyone, many faces I recognize, but many I don’t.

The problem is, I think, most succinctly described as one of the misapplication of United Nations immunity. That sounds like a bit of a bureaucratic mouthful. But, of course, we all know that sexual exploitation, sexual abuse, sexual harassment, sexual offenses of all kinds persist throughout the world. And we know what the derivation is. And we know about the—about the inane and inadequate attempts to prevent and address these offenses that have gone on for generations, centuries.

What’s unique about the United Nations is that the United Nations is covered by a Convention on Privileges and Immunities. This is absolutely essential to the functioning of the United Nations. It couldn’t do its work throughout the world if there weren’t the protection provided by the convention to ensure that one individual government can’t retaliate against the United Nations for something that they’re angry about or can’t bribe the United Nations, can’t simply interfere with the work of the world body by taking it out essentially on an individual staff member. So if you don’t like a resolution that’s just been passed and you did everything in your power as a member state to prevent its passage, and it went ahead anyway, then your proclivity might be to pick up all the people who work for the United Nations in your country and arrest them for missing headlights or on fraudulent charges, on fraudulent bases. And you could detain them for quite some time and send a message to the U.N.

To prevent that from happening, in 1946 the founders of the United Nations decided to pass their very first convention ever. It was a treaty to ensure the free movement of diplomats and others who work for the United Nations between and among countries.

And this now is a very different world. We’re in 2018; peacekeeping wasn’t even envisioned back when the Convention on Privileges and Immunities was put in—was passed. The United Nations has grown exponentially. And what we’re faced with now is an aberration. It’s the United Nations is still protected from scrutiny—and that’s for all legal process—it’s protected from scrutiny by individual governments, by jurisdictions, and so forth.

What happens within the United Nations stays in the United Nations. And that means that you cannot be arrested and detained without the prior permission of the secretary-general. That means that, even if you are accused of a crime, which is not covered by functional immunity, the type of immunity that protects the vast majority of international civil servants from spurious claims, even if you are accused of a crime and you have only functional immunity—in other words, your words and deeds as an employee of the United Nations are covered by immunity, but not your private life—then still, the United Nations has the right, before you can be detained on any charge, to first determine for themselves whether or not immunity does or doesn’t apply. And that can take anywhere from fifteen minutes to fifteen months to fifteen years because these processes are all internal and they’re secretive.

It is impossible, as the reporters in the room know, to file a Freedom of Information Act request for the United Nations because everything that the U.N. does is held in secrecy. And this is—I’m not saying “secrecy” in a pejorative way.

So what it boils down to is, when an allegation of sexual exploitation or abuse, even at the most serious, grave levels, even felony crimes, is lodged against someone who works for the United Nations, personnel of the United Nations, then that becomes an internal matter to be dealt with, in an ideal world, first and foremost, by the United Nations, but in the real world it’s simply handled as an administrative matter. And this creates such a culture of impunity throughout the United Nations that, in particular, the civilian personnel—and that’s to exclude the military personnel who are contracted by the United Nations to become their peacekeeping forces—but the civilian personnel and everyone who works for the United Nations understand that they can essentially do what they want to do just so long as they’re able to persuade, cajole, or pull the wool over the eyes of the bureaucracy that is in charge of their fate.

This leaves us with rafts and rafts of allegations, the nature of which and the handling of which none of us have any clue as to the—none of us know exactly how—or not even exactly, but in broad details, no one knows the names of the people who have been accused, and no one knows the processing of the people who have been accused and the processes that are followed.

And as a result, we have—we have impunity.

BIGIO: Ambassador Pierce, thank you so much for joining us.

PIERCE: Pleasure.

BIGIO: We had just begun. And Paula had laid out what the challenges are when we look at sexual exploitation and abuse across the U.N. system, the challenges how she framed it as a misapplication of U.N. immunity and the challenges when instances occur, when even at the gravest degree of a felony crime, that they’re handled as administrative matters.

Now as we look at what are the gaps, why has impunity persisted as it has for sexual exploitation and abuse across the U.N. system?

And Paula has, I think, so helpfully laid out how the system is put in place to encourage and permit this degree of impunity.

We welcome if you have additional reflections on what challenges you see for ending impunity in the U.N. system for sexual exploitation and abuse. And then the question from there is, how do we tackle this, and what’s the role of member states, of civil society? How can both ensure that the U.N. system addresses this issue in a new and different way to end the impunity that we see has persisted?

PIERCE: Well, good afternoon, everybody.

And many thanks to Jamille and to Paula.

Apologies for being late, but we had an emergency Security Council session on Iran, and then the normal New York traffic kind of got in the way. So I’m very sorry to have kept everybody waiting. And sorry, in particular, not to have seen Paula.

Just on the specific question you mentioned—and I’ll get to that just in a minute if I—if I may—but I think what happened in Haiti with U.K. charities really shocked the system. And it was a huge shock to us as well. And it was—it kind of, although a truly terrible set of occurrences, it perhaps did us all favor by throwing the spotlight onto this issue in a way that we might not have been able to get the spotlight thrown onto it.

And we had a safeguarding summit in London earlier this year. And we like to think of this in terms of four strategic shifts. One is around ensuring support for survivors, but also for victims and whistleblowers, enhancing accountability and transparency, and strengthening reporting, as well as tackling impunity.

I think the second is around incentivizing behavioral change, both on the part of individuals, but also on the part of institutions. That’s not just the U.N., but obviously the U.N. is front and center of that. And once again, those sets of issues come down to things like strong leadership, organizational accountability, and human resources processes.

So in that sense, although those things are obvious, in U.N. terms, they go to the heart of how the U.N. is run. And that’s an issue that goes more wider—more widely than SEA and is something that we grapple with with the secretary-general all the time. In particular, being able to sack people in the U.N. is incredibly difficult. And I’ll come on to that in a minute.

There’s something—the third strand, I would say, is around agreeing the minimum standards, which we would obviously say ought to be quite a high threshold, but also really ensuring that once those standards are agreed that they’re implemented and that they’re met. And as the United Kingdom, we definitely want to do that for ourselves.

And then there’s something about being able to strengthen organizational capacity and capability so that they can do all those—all those things.

I think, as you’ve probably been talking about, the real difficulty with SEA outside the U.N. secretariat funds and programs themselves—I’ll come on to those in a minute—the fundamental legal construct is that individual countries remain responsible for their personnel, their military personnel on peacekeeping missions. And there isn’t a straightforward way of being able to exercise legal authority over those personnel deployed on peacekeeping missions.

One can do things short of legal authority, like setting up registers to make sure that people don’t inadvertently get offered a job having once been found convicted of SEA. But in terms of actually taking them to a court and prosecuting them, that does, very unfortunately, remain a huge—a huge difficulty.

If they were themselves active on the ground in conflict, actually fighting as a party, such that international humanitarian law applied, then it might be possible to have them prosecuted under ordinary measures for IHL and the Geneva Conventions, particularly since sexual violence and conflict now counts as a grave crime under the Geneva Conventions. But I think we all know that it’s terribly difficult, even now, to bring actual prosecutions. It’s not impossible, but it remains fantastically difficult.

So this is one—but most of the time, I think peacekeepers are not involved as a party to a conflict. So there’s a question mark as to whether the Geneva Conventions would be applicable in every case. In fact, they wouldn’t be applicable in every case. I think there would be a question mark as to in how many cases were they applicable.

So that leaves you fundamentally with the secretary-general or DPKO having to go to the country concerned to say you need to prosecute these people. And that is a very difficult—it’s not a difficult thing for the secretary-general to do. It’s a very difficult thing or it is proving to be a very difficult thing for the country itself to do. Sometimes they will claim that they can’t identify the individuals concerned, they couldn’t tell you which unit, or the victims can’t identify the individuals. The secretary-general has the option of asking the country concerned to withdraw their entire peacekeeping unit. It’s an option, it may not work in every case, depending on who would backfill and what the exact situation on the ground is. But there is no mechanism at the moment for compelling a country to take those people to court. And we can talk about that, and we can talk about what sorts of issues might be able to ameliorate that situation.

For example—and I’m not a lawyer, someone like Larry will know better, many of you will know better. Even when that if the state of New York could play a de facto role in prosecutions on behalf of the United Nations—I haven’t got very far with that idea—(laughter)—but, you know, if the countries themselves can’t do it, who is going to do it? And how are you going to get the evidence needed to stand up in a Western court of law? So I’m very happy to discuss that.

If you come on to the U.N. itself, as I say, it’s very difficult to sack somebody in the U.N. And I’m sorry to say that that issue tends to come down to the human rights tribunals. And some very eminent lawyers, including some British lawyers, sit on those tribunals, and they are quite proud of the fact that they hardly ever uphold the U.N.’s case against a staff member. So clearly, something needs to change there. But that goes to the fundamental heart of the secretary-general’s power over the whole organization, which we need to address.

So those two things make it actually a much trickier question than it inherently ought to be, given the enormity of what’s going on.

BIGIO: You’ve put on the table some really crucial questions on this issue. And there’s one in particular, the question of, how do you actually pursue justice against peacekeepers that have perpetrated sexual exploitation and abuse, that Code Blue and Paula have put some innovative ideas on the table of how to move that effort forward.

Paula, I wonder if you could share what you think could help solve the challenge of holding peacekeepers accountable for sexual exploitation and abuse.

DONOVAN: Sure, thanks. So we were shocked in 2015 when we—when we first launched the Code Blue Campaign to find from our research that the vast majority of perpetrators of alleged sexual exploitation and abuse were not military, but civilian personnel of the United Nations. Even within peacekeeping, the division between the military perpetrators and the nonmilitary perpetrators is quite stark. And the civilians outnumber the military.

When António Guterres took over as secretary-general in 2017, the first thing that he stated publicly about this phenomenon of sexual exploitation and abuse and impunity was the fact that he said, essentially, don’t focus just on the peacekeepers, meaning the military, this is a problem throughout the U.N. system. And as someone who had headed the High Commission for Refugees, which is the civilian arm of the United Nations that has more allegations made against its civilian U.N. staff than any other entity within the United Nations, he knew from whence he spoke.

So I absolutely understand what you—what you’re saying, Ambassador, about the military needing to be pressed harder. The troop-contributing countries need to be pressed harder by the United Nations, which is their contractor, their employer, essentially, to ensure that they do uphold the discipline that they have been entitled to hold sway over. They say that they cannot discipline their troops if the troops report to two masters. And the Security Council and the member states in their wisdom have said, yes, that’s the case, so if the military mess up when they’re on assignment as peacekeepers, then you, the troop-contributing country, are responsible for their discipline and you’ve got to do your job. And the U.N., as the contractor of these troop-contributing countries must enforce that and they have to put their money where their mouth is or remove their money when the military don’t do what they need to do.

The civilian personnel are the people that the Code Blue Campaign is focusing on primarily because there is no route to justice. And this is what I was talking about before.

The immunity—the military are not covered by immunity. They are immune from prosecution in the country where they’re working, but not immune from prosecution writ large. They are subject to the jurisdiction of their country. Not so the civilian personnel.

I worked for UNICEF. When I lived in Nairobi, had I committed a crime, the government of Kenya could not have picked me up without prior permission from the United Nations without an assurance from the United Nations that what I had done and who I was was not covered under the shield of immunity. So there’s no route to justice.

This is compounded now by the fact that civilian personnel in countries where the U.N.—and I’m talking now not about the member states and not about the Security Council, but simply the appointees, the people who have jobs at the U.N.—have determined that the system of justice, that it’s essentially a failed state.

So you’re in the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in Haiti at times, in various countries where the—where the bureaucrats who work for the United Nations feel as though the state is just not up to—up to its job. It doesn’t have the police power, it doesn’t have the judicial power to do a job well. And they feel—and I’ve heard this directly from the most senior people in the U.N.—we can’t throw our guys to the wolves.

So if you’re a civilian person who’s working in the Central African Republic for the United Nations and you are accused of a vicious crime, that will be treated internally by the United Nations as though you had broken the rules, not broken the law, because the United Nations does not want to betray its personnel and have some its civilian personnel ending up in what the general counsel described to me as a dank hole in the—in the Central African Republic or in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They simply don’t want to have their personnel arrested by, questioned by, possibly prosecuted by, and imprisoned by the country over whom—the country that has jurisdiction over any crime that’s committed by anybody but military U.N. peacekeeping personnel.

And so, to avoid that problem, they simply say we’re going to pretend the problem doesn’t exist and we’re going to keep quiet about the name of this person who’s been accused of this grievous crime and we’re going to send our own internal investigators who have no jurisdiction to act like regular police officers do. They can’t issue a search warrant. They can’t—they can’t demand that people come in for questioning, and they can’t hold the staff members, they can’t detain them in a jail cell somewhere. They can’t even—if they come across evidence, there’s no chain of evidence they can’t ensure that a courtroom ultimately will accept this evidence and say I know exactly where it’s been from the moment you picked up this bloodied clothing until today it’s shown up in a courtroom. So they have none of that power or authority.

But they do have the power and authority to basically decide, as the ambassador said, whether or not this guy should be sacked. He almost never is. So what happens with these people who have been accused of grievous crimes? They are hidden under the system and they never face justice. And the U.N. explains that as we don’t want to violate the human rights of our staff who might be subjected to substandard beliefs and law enforcement and judicial systems, to which the Code Blue Campaign responds, who are you to decide which is a failed state? You’re not the Security Council, you’re not the General Assembly, you’re simply individuals who have jobs at the U.N. You can’t declare a state a failed state and say we are going to circumvent the law in this particular country.

So we’re saying, if we’re at an impasse here, if you’re saying I won’t throw these people to the wolves, my people to the wolves, and I will not allow the government, this peacekeeping country, to prosecute this, to investigate and prosecute our people because they’re so substandard, then what we’re saying is the U.N., the member states must create a special court mechanism for these particular countries. Make a list of all the countries whose systems you do not trust, whose law enforcement and judicial systems you have no faith in, and create a special court mechanism that’s independent from, unbiased, and not reporting to the secretary-general or any part of the—of the U.N., the bureaucracy—and I’m not saying that as a pejorative term—reporting directly to the member states.

And this special court mechanism would have its own intake officers. It would have its own lawyers. It would have its own police detectives and law enforcement function and would have its own judiciary so that people in the country of Central African Republic could know that if they wanted to—if they had been raped by a civilian person working under the aegis of the United Nations, they could go to an independent office, report the crime, make sure that it was investigated thoroughly and fully by people who really have the jurisdiction to do so vested in them by the United Nations member states, and then they could be brought to trial, prosecuted, and imprisoned if necessary. And yes, they might also be fired at that point by the United Nations, maybe that would be enough to get the guy fired, but at least there would be a path to justice.

But before we can even—we can even lobby successfully for such a—for such a solution, which is only, of course, a path to justice for a small percentage of the people who are committing these crimes, because if you commit a crime in, you know, a refugee camp in Tanzania or something, then maybe the United Nations bureaucrats will decide that that country does have a standard-level jurisdiction and they do trust certain countries.

When I asked, so is it all peacekeeping countries that you distrust, I was told by the under-secretary-general for improving the United Nation’s response, Jane Holl Lute, she said pretty much. And I said, but, you know, can you give us a list, these are the ones that we don’t trust and, therefore, we’re going to circumvent them, these are the ones we do trust? And she said I know it when I see it. And I said, Cyprus? She said no, Cyprus is fine, which she’s now, coincidentally, the special envoy for Cyprus at the same time as she is this under-secretary-general for improving United Nation’s response to sexual exploitation and abuse, which says something troubling to me about the importance that the secretary-general attaches to this issue, that his most senior-level person now has only a part-time job to focus on this. And clearly, it’s not improved yet.

But in order to give the evidence to the United Nations member states that they need about how pervasive and deep and hidden and dreadful this problem is—and all those adjectives apply as well to the way they’re handled in an ad hoc and its sort of make-it-up-as-you-go-along way by the various—by the dozens of different entities within the United Nations—and things just—these horrible allegations that drastically change people’s lives for the worse are simply swept under the rug, and they go on and on and on for years.

In order for the member states to know what we know as the Code Blue Campaign by virtue of leaked documents and people coming to us with information and doing extensive research, the member states need to know what’s happening in real time. You need to be able to see what we see, just snapshots of when someone, who’s desperate, who’s been through the system, comes to us and says I reported this crime and here’s what happened, you can’t imagine how poorly this was handled. And then we start to look into it, we get leaked copies of documents that are protected by immunity, and we see just how bad it is.

We’re also suggesting a temporary independent oversight panel created by member states so that you can have experts who are available, you know, to dip in at any moment, who get a copy of every single report that’s made of any sexual offense at all throughout the system.

And like the—for those of us who are American, like the Internal Revenue Service, although they’re not going to follow every single tax return and make sure that every line is correct, they have the authority to do that. So at any moment, someone from the temporary independent oversight panel gets a copy of an allegation that is made and then has the authority, without the hindrance of immunity, because they’re empowered by the U.K. and the other member states, to be part of the bubble, so immunity doesn’t apply to them, they can say I want to sit in on the interview, I want to see every single email and document that is exchanged about this allegation, I want to know what you’re doing with this person right now, I want to know whether or not that person is still in your employ and whether or not his passport has been held. I want to sit in. As you’re collecting the evidence, I want to look at the evidence, I want to know where you’re keeping the evidence, and follow this case from beginning to end, see the standard of proof that’s applied by UNHCR versus UNICEF versus the World Food Programme versus the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, get a bird’s eye view in real time, go back to the member states and say this is just a snapshot, but it’s this bad, the problem is this pervasive and this deep, and this is how poorly the bureaucracy is dealing with it.

BIGIO: OK. So we’ll open it up now for questions and answers. So if you could please raise your placard if you have a question, we’ll try to get to as many as we can. So if you could keep your questions as concise as you can, that would be helpful.

Q: Hi. Howard Stoffer. I’m now a professor at the University of New Haven, but still an advisor to the previous office, I was the head of the Counterterrorism Executive Directorate at the Security Council.

I agree with everything you’re saying, Ms. Donovan. It is—it’s pervasive. But, you know, first of all, the P’s and I’s that U.N. personnel have are not the same as the P’s and I’s that diplomats have under the—(off mic)—convention. They’re more abridged.

The problem that I think Jane Lute was reluctant to talk about is the fact that, you know, if you’re working for the member states, you can’t declare that one member state has an inadequate, you know, system for adjudication of justice. And for the U.N. to declare that would be—would be very problematic. How do you decide what standards are going to be used, et cetera?

And I’m not trying to criticize the steps you’ve been describing. And, you know, if somebody were to be adjudicated by this other body that you’ve created, where would they be imprisoned? It’s one of the big problems that, you know, they’ve had with, you know, in the African missions and in the—and in Yugoslavia, the former Yugoslavia state. You know, where to you—fortunately, the Netherlands has agreed to take a lot of these people. But I don’t really see U.N. personnel being imprisoned in the Netherlands or anywhere else. It’s a much more—it’s much more a political issue about, how do you go about doing this?

I remember when I was—when I had a staff member who came in drunk every day for six months and eventually was found in hospitals around New York City. I terminated her contract. She went to the tribunals and it took two years with hard evidence to be able to get her fired. It just—it just—it takes that kind of effort.

You’re absolutely right, I think there needs to be some kind of—and every year when I used to be a Fifth Committee member for the U.S. missions for the U.N., which is torture—(laughter)—because they’re all going down to the Christmas deadline—system of justice, how do you fund it, how do you expand it, how do you improve it is always an issue.

I think maybe the first step could be that—and I’m sorry this is not a question, but I just—I couldn’t resist. I normally don’t raise my placard first. But have a commission of the Security Council look into what recommendations could be made for a swifter system of adjudication of these kind of charges.

And you may remember that the head of procurement at one point had his immunity lifted and he’s now serving time in a New York prison. So it is possible to prosecute U.N. personnel.

And one thought that came to me when I was working there for many years was, if somebody is charged with a crime in another country and since the headquarters is here in the United States, they’ll force them to come back to the United—come back to headquarters, and then they get charged. The secretary-general lifts their immunity and then they get charged with these crimes in an American court. And that might be the path to trying to get this done. I’m not sure how the Americans might feel about that. And that’s a very tough road to go, but I think it’s more realistic even than some of the outline you have for something that might be much further in the future.

So my apologies for talking so long. But thank you.

BIGIO: All right. Do you want to reflect on that?

PIERCE: I’m very happy to respond quickly.

BIGIO: Sure, yeah.

PIERCE: Or you can take a number of questions if you’d prefer.

BIGIO: We’ll take them one at a time.


PIERCE: I think, you know, you’re right. There’s something about waiving immunity that all diplomatic services, including the U.N., practice or don’t practice, depending on their assessment of local justice. And the U.N. is no different about that.

I haven’t studied the notion that you might come to a U.S. Court. But as I mentioned at the start, when I look at this, I find myself inexorably drawn to the conclusion that there should be—it should be part of the headquarters agreement with the United States of America, possibly with the Swiss in respect of Geneva as well, given how many agencies are headquartered in Geneva, because I don’t think there’s a perfect model, but I think that might actually get around some of the intractable problems.

I suppose the other thing you could do is just have it agreed with each member state that they would always prosecute their own nationals, even if not seconded personnel, but U.N. staff. But then I think you get into Paula’s issue that the documents and the evidence itself from the location of the crime would then be subject to all sorts of complicated immunities.

But we ought to be able to sit down and discuss all this rationally and see if we can find a way through.

DONOVAN: Just quickly to the point of where do the people get—where are they imprisoned. We had a Chatham House meeting that Jessica and Larry—and I think that’s it from this room—attended, and for a couple of days we banged out the details of the special court mechanism and looked at all the legal hurdles.

And basically, I think everyone in the room concluded that, yes, there are things that are fascinating to lawyers and need to be worked out, such as, should they be—should people be imprisoned in the Netherlands? Is that more or less a violation of their rights? But the reality is those are things that the U.N. is very good at.

So I’m here criticizing the U.N. for things that they’re not good at. But what they are good at is basically working out the details. And there are a zillion committees that can do that sort of thing.

This is not rocket science. So questions like—while it’s a—it’s a vexing one, where should people be detained, to say, because we have questions like that, people should be able to get—people who work for the United Nations, who are civilian personnel in countries X, Y, and Zed should all—I can’t believe I just said “zed,” I’m American—(laughter)—

PIERCE: Come to the other side. (Laughter.)

DONOVAN: —should get away with these crimes because it’s going to be so difficult to work out where they should be imprisoned that we should just basically fire them and let them be on their way.

BIGIO: We’ve got—Evelyn did you want to—

Q: Hi. Evelyn Leopold, correspondent at the U.N.

Ambassador, for the last year, we have been hearing about UNAIDS, and the allegations are either that the top management is involved in sexual abuse or they’re covering up for people who are involved. How long does it take to resolve this? Cannot the secretary-general say you guys are gone?

PIERCE: I can’t remember, I’m afraid, what the secretary-general’s authority is in respect to UNAIDS because each agency has a slightly different charter and governance.

But I do know that the report is due to be published soon. And I’m sorry to say this, but I don’t think it’s going to be helpful for me to comment until I’ve seen that report. But, you know, it’s a serious issue, obviously, and it needs dealing with. But I think better to talk about it once we have the report.

DONOVAN: Sure, can I just help with the—with the jurisdiction of UNAIDS? The secretary-general appoints both the under-secretary-general, Michel Sidibé, and the assistant-secretaries-general, including Luiz Loures. So Luiz Loures was the man who was accused of sexual assault of a colleague, and Michel Sidibé is the person who is accused of covering up the investigation. And they are directly appointed by and extended by or fired by the secretary-general, who professed his loyalty to Michel Sidibé and said that he was completely supportive of him and allowed Luiz Loures to retire after a botched investigation exonerated him. And then the secretary-general, under public pressure by AIDS-Free World and others, felt compelled to say that he was reopening the investigation of Luiz Loures, given new information that had come to the fore. The man is how retired, there’s not a thing that the secretary-general can hold over his head. He’s now retired, living off of his pension in Geneva. And Michel Sidibé remains as the under-secretary-general for UNAIDS.

And this independent expert panel, which was sort of a halfway point, let’s not go over the details of who’s guilty of dreadful leadership and abuse of power and that sort of thing, let’s not go into the details of people, let’s just talk about policies and procedures, this independent expert panel worked for six months and it was actually—the U.K., as you know, is the chair of the governing body of UNAIDS. So under the auspices of the U.K. this independent expert panel was struck. It worked for six months, it interviewed many people, including me, for hours and hours. And apparently, they came up with such dreadful results that they couldn’t keep it specifically on policies and procedures, they had to get into the details of leadership.

I have heard that the recommendation of this independent expert panel, among the recommendations, is to dismiss the senior leaders, Michel Sidibé and others. But yesterday, the report had been announced by the U.K.’s chairperson Danny Graymore. It had been announced that this report would be published online and made public yesterday by close of business. And at the eleventh hour after the UNAIDS management saw the contents of the report, including, coincidentally, let’s get rid of the under-secretary-general, they moved heaven and earth to suppress the report. And it’s now, you know, stuck in debate whether or not the initial declaration by Danny Graymore of the U.K., the chair of the committee, that this report would see—would be public yesterday. You know, how long is it going to take and will it ever see the light of day?

BIGIO: Got late-breaking news and much to follow as this case and circumstance continue to unfold.


Q: Thank you. I wish that late-breaking news was surprising in some way, but, of course, we’ve seen that so many times.

Many decades ago, I work in the U.N. Administrative Tribunal. And we handled a lot of these cases, so I saw it from the inside. And I know that structures have changed a lot in the administrative system of justice, but it doesn’t seem like much else has really changed. You know, there’s a culture. And it’s not just a U.N. culture as we’re seeing, it’s, you know, I don’t know who the wolves are. It’s pretty much every government in the world now that’s facing a #MeToo kind of expose of how imperfect the judicial system is.

But it does seem like there’s a jurisdictional gap. There’s not a criminal jurisdiction for these people. And I think the New York court idea is very interesting. But, of course, the first thing that comes to my mind is, you know, all the witnesses and all the evidence are not in New York, so that makes it very difficult to do justice. And the idea of some more-mobile type of court structure is appealing.

I’m not sure that it matters that much whether it’s controlled by governments or the U.N. because, in the end, I’m not sure who I would trust more, if any of them, to do justice, because it’s really almost kind of the same set of issues.

And that really leads me to my question, which is, we do have these administrative procedures in the U.N. They’re not working well, which leads me to believe that no criminal—firstly, I guess a question on the criminal jurisdiction is, no matter what court you set up, you would probably have to change the agreements with the troop-contributing country agreements. How realistic is that, because somehow they would have to, I guess, allow for that jurisdiction wherever it is?

And then, really, I guess my question is, isn’t this really a problem of political will? I mean, even the procedures that we have, people started getting fired in a regular way, which is completely possible within the scope of the rules. Wouldn’t that change the culture more dramatically than creating a new structure with the same people running it who can’t even use the structures they have in place?

BIGIO: Paula, do you want to reflect? Is this a question of political will?

PIERCE: Do you want to go first?

DONOVAN: I think we probably agree. (Laughter.) Yes, they said in unison.

BIGIO: Well, in the interest of bringing more questions in, I think we can bring more in and then reflect as well on the point that you’ve put on the table, Jessica.


Q: Well, thank you. Thanks to both presenters, I think, for very interesting presentations.

First, I would say no organization has done more than Code Blue in the last three years to push this issue forward. Seriously, we would not be having these discussions if it weren’t for you, so thank you for doing that.

And also, thank you for the U.K. for pushing on this issue in a humanitarian context, but also here at the U.N. We appreciate your leadership on that.

I think, as Jessica mentioned before, there are really three gaps here. There’s the jurisdictional gaps, informational gaps in terms of reporting, disclosing, referrals, and political will in terms of shifting the culture. But the jurisdictional gap is fundamentally the one that I think Paula focused on, rightly so.

And I just have some questions, I guess, about the special courts because I don’t think we can gloss over the technicalities of how these are run. Yes, the U.N. is good at forming committees; no, they’re not good at agreeing to things. So I guess a few questions.

First of all, would it only deal with SEA?

Second, who would decide which states are the ones that don’t have judicial systems that be appropriate?

Third, what laws would be defined? How would they be defined? And who would agree to them?

Fourth, if not all states agree to it, would this be able to take off? Because management and reform issues in the Fifth Committee, that our colleague mentioned, the reason why they go until December is because they decide by consensus. So if we don’t have consensus, how do we have that?

And related to that, how do you ensure the U.N.’s cooperation if you don’t have consensus within the U.N.?

And then beyond that, how do you actually preserve the independence of those courts, because it’s not clear to me that member states will be interested in preserving the independence? And if the decision-making structures are so that they allow one country to veto or to stop or to block consensus, we might end up in a very—a position that’s worse than what we have now.

BIGIO: We’re going to take one last question and then we’ll have final thoughts from our speakers.

Q: Thank you so much. Just building on the points already raised by Jessica and Simon. Sarah Taylor, IPI. I run our Women, Peace, and Security Program there.

Simon covered a couple of my questions, including what crimes this court would deal with. I think that raises questions around sort of segmenting off a particular type of felony or a particular type of grave crime, particularly when people in these contexts are often subjected to and victims of multiple different types of assaults and crimes.

But I want to actually pull on that point a little bit and ask both the ambassador and Paula the extent to which these solutions are, as much as possible, survivor and victim driven, and the consultations around and with people who have been subjected to these—to these crimes, you know, clearly, that was a point that was raised in 2272, but it remains a sort of often missing piece of the puzzle.

BIGIO: Ambassador?

PIERCE: Well, thank you. I mean, I also struggle a little bit with how a special court would get around some of the jurisdictional issues because I would worry in particular that if rape were not a crime in country X, where would that then leave you? And sad to say, there are some countries where it isn’t a crime.

So if you start from the premise that you have to look for something special vis-à-vis the United Nations, and I think you go down lots of other avenues, and I think we should definitely have a policy conversation about that at some point. Our parliament is also very interested and they came out, our development committee came out, talked to the U.N., talked to others about this.

So rather than me rehearse those policy questions, I think it’s something we should make a determined effort to think through before we take it to any particular part of the U.N.

But I think it is just worth emphasizing what Simon said about the way U.N. takes decisions. It does take them in this sort of area by consensus. And if we call for votes, the more progressive point of view is likely to lose. So it’s not as—it ought to be straightforward and everybody ought to be absolutely horrified by these crimes, but very unfortunately, in the world of the U.N., they are not. And therefore, we need to give some thought to how we would actually take things forward.

I’m wondering, though it doesn’t meet the real test, but I’m wondering, in response to Sarah’s question, whether a part of the answer, possibly as an interim answer, is to focus much more on survivors and victims and compensation and something around the way one would deal with person-to-person complaints.

As I said, it’s inadequate for dealing with serious crimes, but it may be more achievable in the short term than some of the harder matters that we’re all interested in. And I wouldn’t see them as exclusive anyway, but I think we could start doing much more on that level than on some of the others.

But I’m quite interested in what would happen if a U.N. staff member murdered another member in a foreign posting. And let’s say it was a crime over which there was some doubt. Let’s take crime of passion for want of a better one. You know, not everyone sees crime of passion as outright murder. I mean, I’m not a lawyer, so forgive the amateurish way I’m describing this, but you get—you get my point. The U.N. would surely have a way of reacting if one staff member killed another. So how do we—how do we get at that? And how do we build on that to do something about this issue?

And I don’t have an answer to that, but it strikes me we should look into that at a policy level as well.

BIGIO: Paula?

DONOVAN: Peacekeeping countries that require the help of the international community appeal to the United Nations to become peacekeeping countries. And it’s part of a bargain. So if you have a substandard judicial and law enforcement system and you want to be a peacekeeping country, then you agree to a special court mechanism, so it’s as easy as that, which answers the question of which states.

There would have to be an international statute against—precedents for this. The International Criminal Court is probably the most problematic, but there are precedents for international statutes and that would be applied in these special court mechanisms.

How to ensure the U.N.’s independence? I’m rarely the only person—the biggest defender of the United Nations sitting in a room, but I sense that that might be—that might be the case here. If you believe in multilateralism, you must suspend your disbelief that the United Nations is capable of doing anything. We either take the U.N. as it is with all its flaws and its cumbersomeness and we try to work out a way that 193 member states can be entrusted to do certain work, or we say forget it, let’s disband it and start from scratch, and let Donald Trump emerge as the—as the—as the world leader. So I think we simply have to accept the foibles of the United Nations if we believe in multilateralism.

Whether or not it should be survivor and victim driven, I think that, as you were saying, Ambassador, if there—if there were murders that were happening in the U.N. at the rate that there are cases of sexual exploitation and abuse, even let’s just take the most grievous ones, let’s just take violent rape, if we had as many murders in the U.N. as we have violent rapes in the U.N. that are reported, then absolutely we would need a special court mechanism for the murderers in the U.N. who are getting away with it.

But this has been described by Ban Ki-moon as a cancer on the system, by Antonio Guterres and the other candidates for secretary-general as something—it was one of the few questions they needed to address when they were applying for the job. This has been isolated as a serious problem for which impunity reigns.

The victims and the—and the survivors of these crimes, like any victims and survivors, should certainly have their voices heard and should have their opinions heard, and they should be part of the solutions. That’s why, if you go onto our website, you’ll see that we’re—that we are undertaking community consultations with former and current and future—former and current peacekeeping countries, the communities within them, and talking to individual community members, and asking them for their expertise, not just their sad stories, but their expertise.

But you can’t have crimes driven, the punishment for crimes and the adjudication of crimes, driven by the victims. They simply are—that’s not the way—the way we protect ourselves as a human community by having the people who are unlucky enough to have been subjected to this particular crime drive the response and whether or not—whether or not those criminals should continue to be at large or whether they should be apprehended and punished and in what way.

BIGIO: Well, there’s much more to cover in this discussion. But please join me in thanking the ambassador and Paula. (Applause.)


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