Upholding Our Values: Putting Victims at the Centre

Assistant Secretary-General Jane Connors (third from left) concluded a five-day visit to South Sudan in Juba on 7 December 2017. ©UN Photo/Isaac Billy

“Sexual exploitation and abuse has no place in our world. It is a global menace and it must end. ... We will not tolerate anyone committing or condoning sexual exploitation and abuse. We will not let anyone cover up these crimes with the UN. Every victim deserves justice and our full support.”
Secretary-General António Guterres, address to the High-level Meeting on the United Nations Response to Sexual Exploitation and Abuse
New York, 18 September 2017

The majority of the thousands of women and men who work for the United Nations uphold the values of the Charter and serve with pride and professionalism, often in dangerous or difficult settings. But every allegation of sexual exploitation and abuse involving our personnel undermines these values and principles. Each diverts attention and resources from the Organization’s purpose of maintaining peace and security, and promoting and protecting human rights and sustainable development for all. It also erodes the trust of individuals the United Nations seeks to serve. 

The Secretary-General is adamant that no one serving under the United Nations flag should be associated with sexual exploitation and abuse. His system-wide strategy, launched in 2017, is transforming the Organization’s approach to preventing and responding to sexual exploitation. This strategy prioritizes the rights and dignity of victims and focuses on combating impunity, building a multi-stakeholder network of support, and reorienting our approach to strategic communication towards transparency and raising awareness of sexual exploitation and abuse worldwide. 

My role as Victims’ Rights Advocate is to ensure that the rights and dignity of victims are at the forefront of United Nations efforts, an objective that cuts across all parts of the strategy. I advocate within the United Nations system and among Member States, civil society and a broad range of other stakeholders to support an integrated response to victim assistance, so that it is rapidly and sensitively delivered; victims are respected, heard and listened to; their cases are taken seriously; and perpetrators are appropriately sanctioned. I am determined to give visibility to those who have suffered and to address the stigmatization and discrimination that victims often face. I also work to ensure victims’ access to justice and to increase accountability, which remains elusive for the majority.

The field is a central part of my work. Victims’ Rights Advocates are in place in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haiti and South Sudan. These Advocates are the operational reflection of my policy: they are the main contact for all victims and ensure that a victim-centred, gender- and child-sensitive and non-discriminatory approach is integrated into all activities to support the realization of their rights. The Secretary-General encourages the appointment of Field Victims’ Rights Advocates in all peacekeeping, humanitarian and development contexts. I advocate that our humanitarian partners also consider this approach. To date, I have visited the Central African Republic, Haiti and South Sudan, where I gained a first-hand understanding of the implementation of the Secretary-General’s strategy on the ground. I was impressed to see the strong commitment among the leadership and the sincere desire to be open and transparent about allegations. Comprehensive communication and outreach measures directed at United Nations staff, the local population and the international community, including civil society, are in place. They spell out what is expected of personnel, and what the community is entitled to expect from their service. During each of my visits, I met confidentially and individually with victims—mainly women and children—to listen to and understand their concerns, and assure them that the United Nations stands beside them as they rebuild their lives. 

Sexual exploitation and abuse damage the reputation and credibility of the Organization and its personnel, but for victims this abhorrent conduct has life-changing impact. There is much more we can do together to support them. Broadening our focus beyond the perpetrators and their conduct to encompass those who have been hurt, and whose rights must be protected and needs met, is a crucial first step. Prevention is vital, and for this we must analyse and tackle the root causes and risk factors. These include gender inequality, a culture of power and tolerance of its abuse, vulnerability of populations, stigma and stereotyping. Poor or no training, ignorance or lack of acceptance of United Nations rules and values, inadequate vetting and, above all, impunity contribute to the problem. 

Sexual exploitation and abuse in peacekeeping and humanitarian contexts do not emerge in a vacuum. They mirror behaviour in our societies and are affected by the complex environments in which we operate. These are often marked by conflict, violence and insecurity, poverty and inequality, and a range of human rights violations, including a high incidence of sexual and gender-based violence. Weak State institutions, particularly justice systems, may also lead to impunity. 

To be successful, our work to confront sexual exploitation and abuse must be linked to the main purposes of the United Nations: the maintenance of international peace and security, promotion and protection of human rights, and the achievement of sustainable development. 

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development provides the means to address the root causes of sexual exploitation and abuse. It establishes an overarching framework, defining international, regional and national development priorities, and encompasses the broad and interlinked objectives of the United Nations. This people-centred agenda prioritizes the dignity of human beings and pledges to leave no one behind. 

Delivering on the Agenda’s 17 goals and related targets, particularly the attainment of gender equality and the promotion of peaceful and inclusive societies, and access to justice for all, requires that the root causes of violence, marginalization and discrimination be addressed. It also requires us to remove the barriers that exclude people, particularly the most vulnerable, from being part of processes that affect their lives, thus allowing them to exercise their human rights and develop their potential. 

The Secretary-General’s development reform package, recently approved by Member States, will fundamentally transform the mechanisms, capacities and operations of the United Nations on the ground. A victim-centred approach must be integrated into this new architecture for sustainable development. As United Nations personnel, we must ensure that those we have pledged to serve and assist are free from sexual exploitation and abuse. Together, we must support victims to become survivors.